Poetry By Heart Blog

Dancing by the Light of the Moon – Gyles Brandreth on learning poetry

4th February 2021

In this review of Gyles Brandreth’s Dancing by the Light of the Moon, David Whitley talks about ‘Poems to Learn By Heart’ as a distinctive genre of poetry anthologies. He reviewed Clive James’s The Fire of Joy for us and is well versed in our own reciting anthology – Poetry By Heart: a treasury of poems to read aloud. If we hadn’t just packed up all our poetry books to shift between offices, we’d add more to this list – and we’d love to hear of others! Our favourite examples of the genre are ones, like Brandreth’s, that include lots of guidance about how to recite. This is not a new genre: we’ve seen wonderful examples of 19th century school anthologies that are really particular about specific techniques of instruction. We’ll write something about those soon, but here’s David on the latest edition to the recitation canon. 

9780241397923

The title of Gyles Brandreth’s recent book, Dancing by the Light of the Moon, derives from the closing refrain of his favourite poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, which he learned by heart as a child. But the subtitle that accompanies this on the cover makes a strikingly grand claim for the art of memorising poetry more generally: ‘How poetry can transform your memory and change your life’, it proclaims. Brandreth, the genial presenter and performer of so many radio shows, knows how to woo an audience and is determined in this book to leave no stone unturned in his efforts to sell the idea that memorising poems is good for you. But if there is a touch of overkill in promoting his pitch here, Brandreth’s enthusiasm is obviously genuine and infectious. Much of what he has to say chimes effectively with what Poetry By Heart is trying to do too, of course.

Brandreth’s claims for the positive effects of memorising and reciting poetry range from the cradle to the grave: babies benefit greatly from hearing poetry regularly and memorising poems later in life will prevent your suffering from dementia, he argues. In between these instrumental claims, there are a whole raft of more affective gains to be had from memorising verse, all of which contribute to our well-being and resilience. After three chapters laying out the groundwork for his far-reaching claims, garnering support from psychology and neuroscience along the way, Brandreth charts a meandering course through various kinds of poetry, exploring their appeal and the challenges they offer for memorising. Above all, this is an anthology of poems to take into one’s memory, bound together by Brandreth’s personal touches as genial guide and enthusiastic host. There are plenty of poems from across the whole spectrum of poetry for anyone to get their teeth into here.

One of the most valuable aspects of this distinctive contribution to the ‘Poems to Learn By Heart’ genre, is Brandreth’s gathering together the voices, wisdom and insight of many others – particularly poets and actors – along the way. There is plenty of practical advice for both memorising and reciting here, much of which will serve as a useful guide for anyone thinking of participating in Poetry by Heart. Although much of the advice offered may be familiar to regular visitors to the PBH website, there are also some striking emphases and, at times, new angles opened up.

Some of these emphases are conveyed in passing, with light touches. Brandreth introduces a list of more challenging poems suitable for memorising at the end of the book, for instance, with the enticement of these being “longer poems to look out for now that you’ve mastered the craft and art of learning poetry by heart”. Positioning the memorisation of verse as a ‘craft and art’ is appealing, not only because it suggests joining a kind of ancient guild, whose skills and knowledge go back millennia – to the dawn of humanity as we know it, indeed. But the phrase also suggests this is something that can be improved and made more pleasurable by sharing experience and techniques with others. Likewise, Brandreth’s notion that “every poem takes you on a journey of sorts” (p.57) is a useful touchstone. Brandreth urges – “[W]hatever the journey, be aware of it. As you travel through the poem, look at each line or phrase or thought as a stepping stone – or as a stop on a country railway ride”. Looking at the poem like this helps keep both the detail and line of progression in focus in a very natural way, as you try to learn it. It’s a more organic – indeed dynamic – way to appreciate how form works over time, rather than analysing a poem’s structure in more abstract modes.

Some of the best advice Brandreth includes comes from other people. He cites Lenny Henry, for instance, advocating writing a poem out by hand before even starting to try to learn it. Henry suggests you should write your lines out “at least ten times” to get maximum benefit. This may be a tad extreme for most people, but it  makes the idea vivid. Henry is also emphatic that the – now rather old-fashioned – practice of writing out by hand is essential in getting the words to cleave fast to your memory.

Brandreth has some good advice about recitation as well as memorising. He cites T.S.Eliot’s reminder that “poetry remains one person talking to another” to warn against over-dramatic forms of performance, for instance. “Only use gesture as you would if you were telling a story to a friend’, Brandreth urges, as a corollary to Eliot’s assertion. This brings into fresh, clear focus that the aim of a performance – even in reciting to a large audience – is to capture something of a poem’s intimacy in the style of address. Big gestures can easily lose this.

Brandreth includes quite a long sequence of advice specifically on reciting blank verse from the actor Ian McKellen. Since more than half the total number of lines in English poetry (including most of Shakespeare, of course) are written in blank verse this is clearly an important area to consider. McKellen urges appreciation “that the last word of the line”, in blank verse especially, “is invariably the most important for the sense and the sound and it is a sort of teaser, leading on to the beginning of the line that follows. That’s the energy of blank verse”, McKellen argues, “- it is always moving onwards, often urgently…”. Building on Brandreth’s notion of the poem’s sequence as a kind of journey, McKellen suggests that in “regular blank verse, each line contains one thought, so that the speeches are made up of a series of logical links.” A consequence of this is that it “disturbs this forward movement if the actor does too many ‘naturalistic’ pauses in the middle of the lines…the natural place to pause (but then only when really necessary for effect) is usually at the end of the blank verse line – even if the end of a sentence occurs in the middle of a line…”

As I began this blogpost reviewing the passionate and comprehensive case Brandreth builds for the far-reaching value of memorising verse, it may be apt to finish with a footnote to this – literally actually! Towards the end of the book, Brandreth appends a footnote to a poem by John Updike, which contains two quotes from the American writer (who was a strong advocate of learning poems by heart). In the first of these citations, Updike claims that “[A]ny activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better”. This doesn’t refer solely to learning poems by heart, of course, but it has a particular resonance for this activity, I think. Not only does this quote emphasise that memorising poems is much more a creative art than a mechanical drill. It also opens onto the perception that the process of memorisation may be creative in complementary ways. To memorise a poem is to enter deeply into the particularity – the inscape, as Gerard Manley Hopkins called it – of the poem itself, which is where its creativity resides. But it is also to take a creative resource into oneself – a form of words, something understood[i] – that is alive to new contexts and potentialities, enabling you to make fresh perceptions and connections. The creativity is both in the poem and in you, in other words, and memorising creates a permanent live link between these two. The second Updike quote, which Brandreth introduces as being “bang on the money when it comes to the value of simply taking time out to learn a poem”, is: “What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit”. This really doesn’t need any further glossing –  “breathing room for the spirit” is something we clearly all desperately need at the moment.

 

 

David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the 3-year Leverhulme Trust funded Poetry and Memory research project, an interdisciplinary enquiry into the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding.  He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime.


 

[i] “something understood” is the last phrase in George Herbert’s amazing sonnet, ‘Prayer’. That it should have popped into my head at this moment is itself an example of the kind of creative connection I’m suggesting here.

Share via

Lost voices of the First World War

29th October 2020

In 2017 and 2018 Poetry By Heart collaborated with the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme to run three very special tours to France and Belgium. There we read and recited First World War poems in the places related to the poems and poets –  including lost, forgotten and neglected poets of the war too. We knew about these poets from Professor Connie Ruzich’s blog, Behind Their Lines, so we invited her to join us – and to help us to choose poems to read and recite. 

In this blogpost ahead of a commemoration taking place when our world is once again in turmoil, we talk to Connie Ruzich about her just-published anthology, International Poetry of the First World War: an anthology of lost voices. This anthology includes a wonderful selection of poems alongside Connie’s contextual explanations, in sections about ‘Soldiers’ Lives’, ‘Minds at War’, ‘Noncombatants’, ‘Making Sense of War, ‘Remembering the Dead’ and ‘Aftermath’. We’re busy adding some of these poems to the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase. Connie also shares her memories of the moments she especially remembers from those wonderful battlefield tours with Poetry By Heart students and teachers, when taking students on field trips was What We Did.

IPofFWW - Ruzich (3)

In International Poetry of the First World War you bring together ‘Lost voices’ from the period. Why do you think it’s so important to capture these lost voices – and how does this anthology expand our understanding of responses to the conflict and its creative legacies?

As the poems in my anthology demonstrate, there was no single representative experience of the Great War, nor was there a typical response to the conflict. And that is important, because poetry anthologies have long served as a crucial means of preserving and shaping literary, cultural, and social histories. Toni Morrison has written, “Canon building is Empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate … is the clash of cultures.” The canon of First World War poetry started to be established around 1930, with a new impetus in schools from the 50th anniversary in 1964, and since that time, it has focused almost exclusively on a select number of British soldier poets who fought on the Western Front and wrote in protest of the war. In recent years, there have been increasingly numerous calls to expand the range of voices and perspectives of First World War poetry, but few modern anthologies have included a representative sample of poems written by women and noncombatants, and fewer still have included poems not originally written in English.

International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices is intended neither to supplant nor to challenge the value of previous anthologies, the poets, or their work, but rather to supplement the canonical poetry of the war and to be read alongside it.  Recovering the diverse body of war poems that were originally published and reading them with a deeper appreciation of their social, cultural, linguistic, and historic contexts can provide a richer understanding not only of war poetry, but of the war itself.

You have described the process of discovering these poems as “happy mudlarking”. Could you say a little more about how you approached this daunting task of assembling this collection?

Mudlarking is the activity of searching the muddy foreshore and banks of rivers for anything of value. I moved my search for lost literary treasure on to dry ground, discovering lost poems and voices in second-hand bookshops, historic society collections, libraries, and museum archives. Digital collections were also invaluable. Numerous poems included in the anthology were written by people who did not identify primarily as poets, but who felt the need to respond to the war and to shape meaning out of their experiences of patriotism, fear, trauma, and grief.

It was particularly rewarding to discover and recover women’s war writing from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, India, America, Australia, and Russia. Both patriarchal societies and the military establishment have frequently attempted to distance women from war. Cynthia Enloe discusses ways in which combat has been viewed as “society’s bastion of male identity,” arguing, “Women as women must be denied access to ‘the front’…. And yet, because women are in practice often exposed to frontline combat, the military has to constantly redefine ‘the front’ and ‘combat’ as wherever ‘women’ are not.”[i]  It is a myth that women did not experience the physical horror of the First World War:  French and Belgium women’s homes were overrun by invading armies, British women were killed in bombing raids, and Armenian women were massacred along with men and children. The first industrial world war challenged the concept of the home front as a safe zone that was separate from the war. British suffragist and pacifist Helena Swanwick wrote in 1915, “War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only. All wars are and must be waged upon women and children as well as upon men.”[ii] And though most women lacked first-hand experience of the battlefront, it is impossible to deny that women had first-hand experience of the war. In many women’s war poems, war has escaped its boundaries; women writers reach across border lines as they challenge conventional ideas about women’s distance from the war and seek to bridge the gap between themselves and other women’s experiences. American writer Amy Lowell in her poem “September, 1918” describes the effort that many must have felt as she describes her “endeavour to balance myself / Upon a broken world.”

From your extensive anthology, are there any poems that are especially meaningful to you, or that you find yourself regularly returning to?

Many poems haunt me, particularly those that mourn the loss of youth and innocence, such as Scottish officer E.A. Mackintosh’s poem “In Memoriam,” written for a private he was unable to save;  G.B. Smith’s poem “Let Us Tell Quiet Stories of Kind Eyes,” which remembers Robert Gilson, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s friends and a member of Tolkien’s first fellowship; or Lucie Delarue-Mardrus’s “Regiments” and Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s “He Went for a Soldier,” both of which describe young recruits marching to their death, accompanied by celebration and cheers.

Other special poems are those that evoke memories of Poetry by Heart tours of the Western Front, poems that were powerfully read and shared by teachers and students: Hedd Wyn’s “War” read in both English and Welsh at Artillery Wood Cemetery (“Ballads of boys blow on the wind, / Their blood is mingled with the rain”), Anton Schnack’s “Standing To” read in both English and German at Langemark Cemetery (“I shall go into death as into a doorway filled with summer coolness”), and René Arcos’ “The Dead” read in both English and French at the Ring of Remembrance (“The widows’ veils / In the wind / All blow the one way”).

Poetry by Heart tour Oct 2018

But perhaps my favorite poems are those with compelling back stories such as Tom Kettle’s “To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God” (written shortly before his death), Clifford Dyment’s “The Son” (written for the father who was killed when Clifford Dyment was a young boy), or Gladys Cromwell’s “The Extra” (written by an American nurse volunteer who was overwhelmed by the trauma she witnessed in France and who took her own life).

This project’s work has been a rich adventure, and it is my hope that readers will encounter the same pleasures of serendipitous discovery, finding new and meaningful voices, histories, and poems in this collection. (When ordered directly from Bloomsbury’s website, the code GLR TW5 can be used for a 35% discount.)

IPofFWW - Ruzich Portrait.png

Connie Ruzich was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the use of poetry in British centenary commemorations of the First World War. She is the editor of International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices (Bloomsbury, 2020), and she runs the popular blog Behind Their Lines, which discusses poetry of the Great War. Her essay “Distanced, disembodied, and detached: Women’s poetry of the First World War” appears in An International Rediscovery of World War One: Distant Fronts (Routledge, 2020), and an essay on wartime language and identity will appear in Multilingual Environments in the Great War (Bloomsbury, 2020). She is a professor of English at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, and you can follow her on Twitter @wherrypilgrim.

 

 

[i] Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 15.

[ii] Helena M. Swanwick, “Women and War” (London: Union of Democratic Control pamphlet, 1915), 1.

Share via

The Fire Of Joy – Clive James on learning poetry

15th October 2020

Clive James’ last book The Fire of Joy  – written with the support of his artist daughter while he was dying – is a sparkling testimony to a life lived with the pulse of poetry running through it. The book embodies and bears witness to James’s deeply held beliefs about poetry, beliefs that relate strongly to the project of Poetry By Heart. In this week’s blogpost, David Whitley enjoys this new anthology of poems and explores what James has to say about getting a poem by heart and saying it aloud. 

FOJ

Poetry is primarily sound for James (or ‘noise’ as he puts it, with characteristically undercutting pretensions): “noise is the first and last thing poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compelling, it won’t continue to exist”, he opines.

This fundamental belief is what inspires the whole book, whose main purpose “is to provide ammunition that will satisfy the reader’s urge to get on his or her feet and declaim”. James is a little tongue-in-cheek in casting the urge to recite as ‘declamatory’, but he is deadly serious about the strength and importance of the impulse itself. “Even the most shy young people, in my experience, have this desire,” he argues, “although they might suppress it for fear of making clowns of themselves. With a poem, the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it.”

What makes poetry stay with you, though, is the way it also slides insidiously into your memory. Reflecting back on his life, James recognises that his “understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or fragments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.”

The Fire of Joy, then, is a treasure house anthology of the poems that have stayed with James over a lifetime, the poems that have come to mean most to him. Each is accompanied by a personal, penetrating – and sometimes provocative (there is always a bit of the showman about Clive James)– commentary.

The central importance he ascribes to memorisation and performance will be familiar themes for those who visit the Poetry By Heart website regularly: but James manages to invest them with fresh impetus and perspective here. Right from the off, for instance, we are cued into the nuances of the most desirable way construe recitation by the phrasing of the subtitle. There are dozens of anthologies of poems to memorize with the words ‘by heart’ on the title page, but James’ version sports ‘Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud’. To ‘Get by Heart’ feels deliberately less earnest and institutional than the more standard phrasing, ‘Learn by Heart’; while to ‘Get’ also engages a range of subsidiary meanings; such as taking hold of something desirable; or understanding, as in the colloquial expression ‘I get it’. Even the injunction to ‘Say Aloud’ subtly marks its distance from the declamatory urge with which James (somewhat hyperbolically) introduced the topic. ‘Say aloud’ is less self-consciously histrionic, closer to ordinary speech than alternatives such as ‘declaim’, ‘perform’, or even ‘speak’.

After a brief introduction (interestingly, here James recalls his own school experiences of recitation, where he learned to associate poetry with freedom), James offers a page or so of advice for reading aloud which he calls ‘rules’. These are clearly sacred tenets for him, the distillation of his own experience and his lifelong attempt, not only to bring poetry alive, but to stay true to its essential form. A number of these nostrums are similar to the advice given on the Poetry By Heart website, though given distinctive Jamesian phrasing. “Go more slowly than you think you need to”, he begins, for instance; and later, with a slightly sardonic edge: “No amount of vocal beauty will compensate for the fact that you have no idea what the poem means. Figure it out before you start”. (One might add to this Jamesian credo that you often ‘figure it out’ at a deeper level in the process of getting a poem by heart, however).

But it is in the attention that he gives to line endings that James’ advice is most distinctive – indeed punctilious. One of his injunctions is simply to “[K]eep your voice up towards the end of the line”. This seems sensible in terms of not trailing off, but also recognises that line endings – especially where they rhyme – are designed to give subtly greater emphasis to the last word. More controversially, though, James provides a whole inventory of strict rules for administering pauses to line endings, at least in relation to regular stanzas. It is worth quoting the edicts in full here:

pause for the length of a comma at the end of the line to indicate that the line is turning over. If there is already a comma there, pause for the length of two commas. Pause also for two comma lengths at the end of any line ending with a semi-colon, colon or full stop. Pause for at least three comma lengths between stanzas. Don’t be afraid about the pauses losing you the audience. The impetus of the line will keep them listening, whereas a stumble from too much gabble will very soon make them wonder why they didn’t stay at home and watch television.

Teachers, and many experienced reciters, may wonder whether this antidote to ‘gabble’ risks being too doctrinaire, potentially inhibiting fluency and instinctive feel for the rhythms of verse amongst younger reciters who are finding their way into this ancient art for the first time. But these strict rules do provide an interesting topic for debate. And perhaps it is good to be this clear about baseline principles for recitation that cleave so closely to the formal structure of the poem, even if you decide to loosen and vary this practice? James doesn’t say how line endings in more open, free verse forms should be treated, but one suspects that he feels these should still generally be marked to a large degree consistently. Comments from Poetry By Heart users and any other interested parties would be very welcome!

I’ve finished this blogpost with a focus on some rather technical aspects of recitation. But I would heartily recommend James’ book on more general grounds – for its wit, wisdom and unbounded enthusiasm for the power of poetry to enrich our lives. Amongst other things, this is an exceptional anthology of poems.

 

David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the 3-year Leverhulme Trust funded Poetry and Memory research project, an interdisciplinary enquiry into the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding.  He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime.

Share via

Close encounters with poetry

16th July 2020

At Poetry By Heart we always want to thank teachers for their work in making the competition happen in their schools, and for using the opportunity in so many creative ways to bring poetry alive for children and young people. In the context of doing this in an extraordinary school year, shaped in strange ways by Covid-19, we wanted to say that thank you louder. We were able to do that with the support of Candlestick Press in the form of a poetry pamphlet. Candlestick’s assistant editor Kathy Towers reflects here on the unique approach of the independent poetry publisher and notices some common themes with Poetry By Heart.

Candlestick banner

 

Candlestick Press occupies a very particular niche in poetry publishing; our unique Ten Poems about recipe has been bringing poetry to new audiences for over 12 years and in that time we have sold over 600,000 pamphlets. The ethos is simple: encourage people to discover (and hopefully love) poetry by appealing to an enthusiasm, whether this be knitting, football, birds, bees, clouds or baking.

 

In this time of coronavirus poetry seems to have become more important and potent than ever: people are turning to poetry for company, comfort and distraction, as well as to connect with others and share experiences. Some are revisiting poems they learned by heart at school and finding comfort in the familiar words. Others are looking for new poetry that reminds them of the things that don’t change – the beauty of the natural world and the reliable progress of the seasons, for example.

 

Candlestick’s slimline mini anthologies are designed to be the opposite of daunting – ten poems are neither too many nor too few to offer a satisfying immersion. Each title provides an intense and hopefully memorable encounter with poetry. In this way, Candlestick’s approach could be said to have something in common with Poetry by Heart. You can’t learn a poem by heart without getting right under its skin and breathing as it breathes.

 

We work very hard to get our titles into outlets beyond the ‘usual’ mainstream and independent bookshops; our pamphlets are sold in some surprising places including museums and galleries, bakeries, wool shops, garden centres and national park visitor centres.

 

Choosing a theme is one of the lovely parts of the job. Sometimes ideas come in from readers via the website. Often, it’s a case of a topic seeming to cry out for the mini anthology treatment. Who could resist Ten Poems about Bees, Ten Poems about Baking or Ten Poems about Flowers? There’s also fun to be had in going a little off the beaten track: Ten Poems about Sheds has been a highly popular title, as has Ten Poems about Husbands and Wives.

 

One of the keys to a Candlestick title’s appeal is the beauty of the cover. Our ‘instead of a card’ tagline means that every pamphlet must look gorgeous enough to rival the most gorgeous greetings card. This is why we often commission leading contemporary artists to create our covers for us and we’ve been thrilled to showcase work by people such as Angela Harding, Celia Hart, Hugh Ribbans and Sarah Young.
We often ask a guest to headline our titles – something that plays an important role in boosting appeal. Ten Poems about Gardens has an introduction by Monty Don, Ten Poems about Bees is introduced by environmentalist Brigit Strawbridge Howard and Ten Poems about Art is edited by art critic and writer Geoff Dyer.

 

One of our top selling titles is Ten Poems about Walking edited by poet and keen walker Sasha Dugdale. The selection is a mix of old and new and covers all manner of walking experiences – from walks / talks with much-loved friends to Wordsworth’s Old Man Travelling and a support group for widows sharing a flask of tea on the top of Helvellyn. The warmth and humanity of the poems must surely be one of the reasons for the title’s continuing popularity.

 

We’re really delighted to be supporting Poetry By Heart, particularly at this extraordinary time. From our two very distinct niches it’s clear that we share some important beliefs: that poetry matters, that poetry is for everyone to enjoy and that in the best and worst of times poetry can offer light, beauty and solace.


Thank you to Candlestick Press and thank you again to every teacher who took part in Poetry By Heart 2020. The competition fun begins again in September.

@poetrycandle

Share via

Poems Need to be Read Aloud

6th May 2020

In the first part of this blogpost, poet Joseph Coelho makes the case for reading poems aloud and introduces his new collection, Poems Aloud, which presents the poems with lots of prompts and tips for lifting them off the page. In the second part, Karen Lockney reviews Poems Aloud with the very able assistance of a Year 7 Mystery Shopper!

Poems Aloud by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Daniel Gray – Barnett is published by Wide Eyed Editions
ISBN 9780711247680   £11.99 Hardback   Published 4 February 2020.


this-bear 800x470

Joseph Coelho

 

Poems need to be read aloud, they need to be heard and shared and experienced together. In this way poems can bring people together, in this way feelings can be shared, ideas contemplated, actions taken. This thought was at the forefront of my mind when writing Poems Aloud, my latest poetry collection, illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett. The collection aims to gently introduce young people to poetry through the performance skills that help lift poetry off the page.

 

Many people find poetry scary, something to be analysed, something purely to be studied, something that others write and others perform. With Poems Aloud, I wanted to break down some of those fears through the lens of performance. There are poems designed to be whispered in a friends ear, poems that encourage the reader to emphasise rhyme, poems that suggest actions, poems that need to be shouted. Not only do these techniques highlight the often overlooked medium of performance, but they also help the student find new ways of appreciating, understanding and relating to poems they have read, studied or indeed written.

 

Poetry, it seems, is having a much needed and long-awaited revival, with increasingly more collections being published and poetry slowly finding more shelf space in bookshops and on award-winners lists. The more the better, I say, because the more poetry is celebrated the more we can spread the message that poetry is there for us all, not just to pass the time but to help us through difficult periods in life. There are good reasons why poems are often read at funerals and shared at birthdays and weddings. Poetry manages to describe the indescribable, it finds a way to truly transmit how we are feeling. It’s for this reason that the growth of online resources, like the English Association’s Poetry Portal and the Poetry by Heart scheme that has children learning poems, off by heart, are so essential. With resources like the Poetry Bookmarks, the English Association is part of a growing community of organisations providing free resources that help students and teachers find new ways into poetry.

 

In the past our focus on poetry has mainly been around analysing and getting our analysis “right”, or writing purely to be read on the page, with no feel or regard for how the poem could be performed. For too long the worlds of performance poetry and published poetry often inhabited different spaces. All that is changing now, with many performance poets being published and recognised in arenas that were once mainly concerned with just the published word. In fact, things are changing so much that I often wonder if terms like “performance poet” continue to be valid: every performance poet I know, myself included, always wrote down their poems first, so aren’t we all just poets?

 

It’s thrilling to see poetry read by real poets appear on TV adverts and shared by celebrities. I strongly believe that with the gradual increase in appreciation of poetry as a performed as well as written art, we are seeing the gradual rise in the popularity of poetry as a whole. It follows that we must ensure that poetry is continued to be read, studied, analysed and performed. It is a beautiful, malleable and varied artform that should always be celebrated in all its different facets. We need to teach children all of these incredible ways that they can engage with poetry because, really, what we are teaching them is all the incredible ways that they can express and engage and become familiar with their own feelings and emotions and those of others. What better way to create a stronger tomorrow?

 

Karen Lockney

This lively celebration of poems to be read out loud, contains 29 poems by writer and performer Joseph Coelho, and it has the feel of a picture book in this hardback edition, colourfully illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett.

This would be an excellent addition to a poetry library in a KS2 classroom, and could also find some fans in slightly older children. It would work well for children to explore themselves, but could also be used by teachers as part of their poetry repertoire. This would also make a lovely bedtime reading book for younger children, where an adult could encourage the speaking out loud of a poem in a fun way, using the guidance given.

Its main strength is the pointers it has for each poem, or collection of shorter poems, to encourage a variety of reading and performing strategies such as tongue twisters and riddles; poems to take the voice from soft to loud, or vice versa; poems to read fast and slowly; poems for more than one voice. A couple of poems focus on homophones and verbs, and these could be a useful and creative addition to lessons exploring language features.

There are chilli ratings (1 for hot and 2 for extra hot!) that let the reader know they may contain difficult words or more challenging themes, though less able readers may need support accessing several of the poems.

The poems work well in conjunction with the illustrations, and readers will be able to experience the pleasure of an illustrated poetry book with a collection by a single poet, which offers something slightly different to anthologies more commonly found in classrooms and poetry collections for younger readers.

turn-the-radio-up-loud 800x470

Some observations from a Year 7 pupil:

I would have enjoyed reading this book in my Year 5 and 6 classrooms because it would have encouraged me to experiment with different ways of reading poetry out loud. I like the presentation and layout of each page, because it makes you want to spend longer reading the poems. It is good that it gives you ideas on how to read a poem out loud, because sometimes I struggle to know what to do to make a poem sound good. If you use the prompts to bring the poems alive, then this could be really funny e.g. the poem ‘Turn the Radio Up’ encourages you to start off whispering and then raise your voice until you are shouting by the end. I like the fact it links to musical terms like crescendo and diminuendo to help you understand the way sound can work in a poem. I would have happily read this book myself, but I also would have liked to work on it in groups or with my teacher. I think this book will help younger readers know how to bring poems to life, and to have fun with poetry.


JOSEPH COELHO is an award winning poet and performer from London, although he now lives by the sea. In 2019 he won the Independent Bookshop Week Picture Book Award for If All the World Were. He has been long-listed for The Carnegie Children’s Award with his poetry collection Overheard In A Tower Block, which was also shortlisted for the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award and Longlisted for the UKLA Book Awards. He won the 2015 CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award with his début poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules. His début picture book, Luna Loves Library Day was voted one of the nations favourite picture books by a survey led by World Book Day . His other poetry books includeHow To Write Poems and A Year Of Nature Poems. He has written plays for companies including: Soho Theatre, Polka Theatre, The Unicorn Theatre, Theatre Royal York, Oily Cart and The Spark Children’s Festival to name a few. Joseph has been a guest poet on Cbeebies Rhyme Rocket, Radio 4’s Poetry Playtime and Front Row. He is the presenter of BBC’s Teach Poetry (Oct 2018) and features in DiscoveryEDUK’s Poetry Curriculum. www.thepoetryofjosephcoelho.com@poetryjoe

 

KAREN LOCKNEY is a member of the Poetry By Heart team and a senior lecturer at the University of Cumbria.

 

Share via

Clive James on the power of poetry to lodge in our memories

13th February 2020

Poetry Notebook graphic crop
In this blogpost, David Whitley shares with us his reading of Clive James’s fascinating and insightful Poetry Notebook, and what the late great broadcaster and poet had to tell us about poetry memorization and performance.

Reading the late Clive James’s Poetry Notebook recently reminded me of how fascinated he was by the memorization and performance of poetry. Much of what he has to say on this topic resonates really interestingly with the practices that Poetry By Heart has sought to reinvigorate. James develops a characteristically clear, thoughtful and provocative stance on the significance of poetry’s power to lodge in our memories, as well as on how poetry should be performed. Sharing some of his thoughts may stimulate further discussion and debate amongst Poetry By Heart users.

Like many poets, Clive James sees memorability not just as an ancillary feature, but something essential to poetry as an art form. Indeed, reading through Poetry Notebook you realise that he is invoking memorability consistently as a prime quality in judging the value of a poem. A poem that is not memorable – at least in parts – is not worthy to survive, according to James. He quotes with approval Robert Frost’s apparently humble ambition (though actually more demanding than higher sounding alternatives) of ‘lodging a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of’. Seamus Heaney made this a touchstone for effective poetry teaching, indeed, when he wrote that ‘[W]hat matters most in the end is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well remembered. If at the end of each year spent in school, students have been marked by even one poem that is going to stay with them, that will be a considerable achievement.’ (In ‘Bags of Enlightenment‘, in The Guardian)

Although a good poem can’t exist without at least some memorable lines, it may not be easy to memorise as a whole, however. James cites Frost’s sonnet ‘The Silken Tent’ as being a brilliant poem that is particularly difficult to learn by heart. He also reflects critically on the relationship between memorable lines and – long! – unmemorable sections in Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. Interestingly, the renowned American critic and strong advocate of memorising poetry, Helen Vendler, has suggested that the sections of a poem that are particularly difficult to remember accurately often provide clues to its deeper, or more subtle, meanings. This is perhaps a good reason to encourage learners not only to persevere in memorising a poem accurately, but also to think carefully about the distinctive effect of the parts of a poem that are phrased in ways that are awkward and hard to commit to memory.

James is equally engaged and categorical when discussing how poems should be performed. Although his tastes in poetry are broad, he sets great store by a poem’s form and structure, which he considers essential to its capacity to engage us deeply. A good recitation is one that has responded intelligently and sensitively to the structure, as well as the sense, of the poem. In his ‘Poetry Archive Tour’, for instance (available on the Archive’s website and well worth visiting), James praises Philip Larkin’s recitation of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ for knowing ‘how to observe…line endings’ – ‘unlike almost all professional actors’, he adds, rather acerbically. ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is composed in regular, rhymed stanzas, of course. But in free, or ‘open’ verse, line endings are likely to be the only formal device structuring the poem. Line endings’ cues as to how a poem should move when spoken – particularly where subtle pauses might cut across the more natural rhythms of prose speech – thus take on all the more importance here.

James does not advocate an artificially ‘poetic’ voice for recitation, however. His ideal is the ‘unaffected naturalness’ he attributes to James Fenton’s performance of his poem ‘Jerusalem’. But James sees this naturalness as just one side of what he calls a ‘precious double gift’; its counterpart is the speaker’s finding a way to retain ‘all the rigorous construction of [the] verse forms’, without seeming strained. This is clearly a considerable challenge to do well, particularly as there is always also a danger of trying to dramatize, or big up, the emotion too much. Clive James’s ideal reader will never make ‘the mistake of trying to put extra emotion into lines that already had, packed within them, all the emotion they could take.’ Often it will be the quiet performance, allowing the poem to speak rather than drawing too much attention to itself, that will be the most impressive. This apparently self-effacing approach doesn’t mean the performer can’t still own the poem, however – quite the reverse, paradoxically. A quiet performance may still render the poem highly personal and distinctive.

Click here to read Seamus Heaney’s article ‘Bags of Enlightenment’ in The Guardian

Click here to listen to Clive James’s guided tour of The Poetry Archive

 

David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the ‘Poetry and Memory’ research project with Debbie Pullinger. He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime

Share via

First Lines

31st March 2015

In his excellent little handbook “On Poetry”, Glyn Maxwell talks about a poem’s conception, the poem arising “from the urge of a human creature, once, upon a time – to break silence, fill emptiness, colour nothing with something, anything.”

 

He invites us to think about the opening line of any poem as the precise moment at which the pressure of that silence breaks into an utterance that has to be heard. Maxwell suggests letting photography help us think about this, imagining any first line as a photographic frame. Imagining this as a “snapshot” encourages us to slow down our reading, to really think about the moment at which this voice starts to speak, where it’s coming from and its orientation to us, its readers and hearers. Maxwell suggests these key questions:

“How much of the frame is taken up by the face of the poet? Is his or her whole figure in the poem, is he or she farther away? Back to you, gesturing in the distance? Hovering spectrally above? Seated, standing, walking? Is the picture in colour? What does he or she think of you? Can you be seen at all? Is the poet present at all?… Consider how he or she is there, how the poet is imprinted on the poem.”

It’s a set of questions that can take us a long way, just with the first line. At another point, Maxwell also suggests storyboarding as a creative way of getting inside a poem. Try it in conjunction with his ideas about opening lines and interesting things happen. Take a storyboard sheet and use the final frame to visualize the moment of the opening line. Then fill in the four or five frames before that. What happened to cause such a build up of pressure that the first line became inevitable?

Try this with any line of poetry you like but the Poetry By Heart website could help students find their own favourites. From the homepage of www.poetrybyheart.org.uk click on “Resources and Downloads” and then “Index of First Lines”.  This is an A-Z list of the opening lines of the 200+ poems in the Poetry By Heart timeline anthology, hyperlinked to the full poem pages. Alternatively, from the “Resources and Downloads” page click on “Learning Resources” and you will find a pdf of the index of the first lines that you could download and share.

To go further, give students the first and last lines, and consider how the poet might get from A to B before reading the whole poem. You might explore the first line and then have students writing one or more next lines to explore where it might go and then where the poet took it. And if your students are planning to enter the next Poetry By Heart competition, it’s another way of exploring the poems to find ones they might want to commit to memory.  Taken completely out of context, they offer surprising and delightful little voyages of discovery.

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and co-director of Poetry by Heart. Pictured here at the opening of Poetry by Heart 2015 at Homerton College, Cambridge University March 2015

Share via

Publishing Poetry

19th September 2014

Tony Lacey, publisher of the new Poetry By Heart book, reflects on forty years at Penguin and the pleasures and challenges of publishing poetry. Tony also contributes his own choices to this Blog’s ‘Desert Island Poems’ series.

 

Edited by Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, Jean Sprackland and Sir Andrew Motion. Published by Penguin. Publication date: October 2nd 2014

I’ve been at Penguin for forty years and published a huge range of books, from sports personality biographies and war memoirs to upmarket literary fiction. But one of the true highlights was publishing the second series of Penguin Modern Poets in the late 90s. I’d grown up, literally, with the first series, buying each volume as they came out through my teens and beyond: it was through these little volumes that I first read Gavin Ewart, John Fuller, Dannie Abse, and a host of others that became favourite poets of mine. It was also through Penguin Modern Poets that I came to know the Beats and the Mersey poets.

Twenty-five or so years later I was toying with the idea of a follow-up, second series, and slightly to my surprise my colleagues were encouraging: I’d always thought of poetry as a bit of a private passion, best left to those professionals in the field like Faber. We ended up publishing twelve volumes between 1995 and 1997, each volume containing the work of three poets as in the first series, and I think you can gauge the quality by the poets featured in the first and last books: James Fenton/Blake Morrison/Kit Wright and Helen Dunmore/Jo Shapcott/Matthew Sweeney. I’ve just done a quick count on the Poetry by Heart timeline, and I reckon that eighteen of the poets included there were in our series.

I wish I could pretend that the series was a huge commercial success in the way that the first had been. (A figure of one million copies is often quoted as the number of copies sold of the Mersey Poets volume alone, published in 1967 – I can’t prove it because Penguin’s sales figures on computer only go back to the mid70s. But give or take a few hundred thousand, it was clearly a phenomenal figure – those were the days!)  Why the second series didn’t take off in the same way is a question for social historians – it has something to do with cultural climate of the 1960s. But I’m pleased by the way the series has stood up to the test of history – looking at them recently to check a few texts for the Poetry by Heart anthology, it struck me again that they represented a terrific introduction to a new generation of poets.

The fact that we’ll be publishing Poetry by Heart in my last months at Penguin is hugely gratifying. Not just because it is poetry, but because it’s the best kind of poetry publishing, in the great Penguin tradition of publishing the best but to the widest possible audience. And my Desert Island eight from the anthology?

‘The Good Morrow’ and ‘Dover Beach’ – great poems that obviously don’t require any justification from me but I’ve chosen them because, encouraged by Poetry by Heart, I’ve learnt them both in the past few months. No mean feat in late middle age, I can tell you! I’ve known them all my adult life but to be able to recite them feels like a miracle.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ – because it’s so weird, and never seems any less weird no matter how many times you read it. I know Browning said his interest was on the dangerous side of things, but even so – this is a shocker.

‘The God Abandons Antony’ – I feel uneasy with poetry in translation. Reading it often feels like looking through a slightly fuzzy window: you know there’s something good on the other side but you can’t quite get it in focus. But this does it for me. There may be extra-poetic things going on here, I admit: Cavafy’s life is enormously resonant for one thing, and also I really like Leonard Cohen’s beautiful reworking of the poem, which features in his Book of Longing collection, the most successful book of poems I’ve ever published. (Not quite Mersey Sound figures but getting on…)

‘Skunk Hour’ and ‘I don’t operate often’ – I love the American poets of the 50s and 60s, perhaps above all other twentieth-century poets. Fashion has turned against the men (Elizabeth Bishop has now supplanted them in public esteem) but I persist in revering Lowell and Berryman. There’s a kind of stately excitability about Lowell that I like, and as for Berryman – whole chunks of his Dream Songs have stuck in my head as firmly as any 60s pop lyrics.

‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ – one of Housman’s exquisite lyrics. I know that ‘exquisite’ is a slippery word, and I’ve heard it said that Housman is top second-division rather than first, but I don’t think all poetry has to be grandiose or all-encompassing, and I think this poem can stand beside the best.

Finally, William Empson’s ‘Aubade’ – this seems to have everything a great poem should: wonderful singability, real intellectual interest, and something of a puzzle about it too so that it never fully gives itself up.

Tony’s Desert Island Choices:

1)      ‘The Good Morrow’ John Donne

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-good-morrow/

2)      ‘Dover Beach’ Matthew Arnold

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/dover-beach/

3)      ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ Robert Browning

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/porphyrias-lover/

4)      ‘The God Abandons Antony’ C. P. Cavafy

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-god-abandons-antony/

5)      ‘Skunk Hour’ Robert Lowell

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/skunk-hour/

6)      ‘Dream Song No 67: I don’t operate often’ John Berryman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/i-dont-operate-often/

7)      ‘Tell me not here it needs not saying’ A.E. Housman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/tell-me-not-here-it-needs-not-saying/

8)      ‘Aubade’ William Empson

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/aubade/

 

Tony Lacey went to a grammar school in south London, then read English at the University of Bristol. He joined Penguin straight from university, and apart from one year at Granada, he has been there ever since. He was  Publishing Director of Puffin in the early eighties, succeeding the legendary Kaye Webb, before he moved over to adult books to be the first Publishing Director of Penguin’s new hardcover list, Viking.His authors include Will  Self, Nick Hornby, Claire Tomalin, Matthew Parris and William Trevor, and he has published a number of poetry anthologies – most recently The Poetry of Birds (edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee) and The Poetry of  Sex (edited by Sophie Hannah). He plans to retire in 2015 and at last read Edward Gibbon, Robert Musil, etc etc.

Share via