Poetry By Heart Blog

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.

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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.)

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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.

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Poetry By Heart France

21st August 2020

Poetry By Heart is part of an international family of related poetry reciting competitions: Poetry Out Loud in the USA, Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, Talk the Poem in Jamaica, Poetry Aloud in Ireland, Poetry for Life in South Africa, and, as teacher and competition organiser Antony McDermott reports here, Poetry By Heart France.

We love all these international connections and this year we’re taking a first step, with Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, towards a future international competition too. That will take time to develop but for now we’re hugely excited that one state school finalist from key stage 4 or 5 in the 2020-21 competition will be invited to Toronto in 2021 to perform alongside the Canadian Poetry In Voice competition winner at the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize awards ceremony.

More news about that soon, but here’s Antony on what these international connections mean for Poetry By Heart France.

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Our Poetry by Heart adventure began back in 2015. As an English teacher and poetry-lover, I was looking for ways to bring poetry to life in the classroom and to move students away from thinking that poetry was just about studying a small number of poems for a final exam. One question kept coming back to me: how could I encourage my students to develop a true love of poetry – a feeling they would hopefully carry with them after they had left school? When I came across the UK Poetry by Heart project, I knew straight away that this was a project that had so much to offer: it allowed students to discover a vast range of poetry; it emphasised student choice; and it encouraged students to develop a personal relationship with a poem and to express that through the power of voice, tone and intonation. The competition was also a reminder to all of us of the simple joy of hearing a poem being recited and how wonderful that can be.

And so it was, that with the support of ELSA (English Language Schools Association) and the kind encouragement of Tim Shortis and Julie Blake, we managed to set up our first competition in March 2015. Ten schools, mainly from the Paris area, took part and from the off the response to the competition was overwhelmingly positive. Of course, competition day was a wonderful event – a moment when students stepped onto the stage and were able to share their love and appreciation of poetry with a rapt audience. The wide impact that the competition had was also expressed by all of the teachers there – many referred to the way it had helped to raise the profile of poetry in their schools; the way it had encouraged their students to begin to think about what sort of poetry they liked and why; and the way that it had also allowed different students to shine, with many discovering a talent that they had not known they had, a talent to move people and transmit a feeling just through recital.

The success of the 2015 competition and the positive feedback on the day made it clear to us all that we had to do everything possible to continue the competition each year, and make it a permanent fixture of the school calendar. With some pride we can say that it is mission accomplished as the competition has continued each year since 2015 and the number of schools participating has increased from 11 to 17. The competition is also interesting for us here in France as it attracts students with differing relationships to English: some have an Anglophone parent and so speak English at home; others are bilingual and juggle two languages both at home or at school; some are French students who have developed a strong bond with the English language and English literature through their studies; and others are students for whom French and English are not their first languages. What all of these students do share is a love of poetry and a desire to share that love of poetry through the power of voice – the Poetry by Heart competition in France gives them the opportunity to do that.

Since 2015 the Poetry by Heart UK organisers have always been extremely encouraging, giving us support and advice from across the Channel. It was therefore with much excitement (and some nerves) that we were lucky enough to welcome Tim Shortis and Julie Blake to our 2017 finals here in France. It was a truly magic moment for everyone (teachers and students) to hear Julie tell us about the UK competition, how it had started and its evolution, and to receive encouragement from her and praise for our students’ recitals. Not only did the visit give validation to Poetry by Heart France, but it also felt, in a small way, as if we were building bridges and making connections (through the power of poetry) at a time when links between the UK and Europe seemed to be particularly fraught.

The excitement continued as our 2017 winner was invited by Tim and Julie to attend the British finals in the magical setting of The British Library in April that year. What an honour it was for our winner, Eléonore, (a student at the Institut Notre Dame school in Paris), to find herself reciting The Galloping Cat, in front of a packed room of UK finalists. As well as reciting her poem, she was treated like a true celebrity, being interviewed by the UK team about her experience as a Poetry by Heart competitor, and she also got to meet the actor, Freddie Fox.

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Eléonore meets the British actor, Freddie Fox, one of the guest speakers at the event

 

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Eléonore being interviewed by the UK organisers about her love of poetry

 

The Poetry by Heart France competition continued smoothly and successfully in 2018 and in 2019, and so by 2020 setting up the competition all seemed very simple. Everything was in place and we were all raring to go: the date of Saturday March 14th had been confirmed; the 16 participating schools had chosen their students; the venue was ready; the judges had been found and most importantly, the refreshments had been ordered – what could possibly go wrong? Of course, this was without taking into account the arrival of the Coronavirus. Just a week before the competition, we were told that for safety reasons it was no longer possible to organise large gatherings of people – Poetry by Heart France had to be cancelled. For the many students who had prepared their poems and who were ready to recite them, it seemed like a terrible shame but not much could be done.

A few weeks into lockdown though and once online teaching and learning had become the norm, it seemed more and more obvious that something could and should indeed be done to revive the 2020 competition. A message was sent out asking if students would be willing to film their recitals and the response was positive – yes, students were indeed keen to still take part. At a time when everyone was adapting to a difficult situation, poetry offered us all the chance to escape into other worlds and be transported by the beauty of other voices. The students taking part all managed to do just that through their delightful recitals. In the end, 29 enthusiastic students took part from 14 different schools in France – and the 2020 competition (version française) had been saved.

So what lies in the future for Poetry by Heart France? We will definitely continue with the English version here in France in 2021 and aim to encourage even more schools to get involved. We will continue to develop our middle school Poetry by Heart competition, which has been running now for a few years (and which has been a big success helping to enthuse younger students with the excitement of poetry recital), and we are looking into the possibility of creating a primary school competition as well. Our next big project though is to set up a bilingual version with the possibility of allowing students to recite poems in both French and English – this really would be a lovely way to celebrate poetry from different cultures. We’ve come a long way since everything started in 2015, but what has become evident along the way is the positive impact that the adventure has had on us all: it has allowed us to create a stronger sense of community amongst the participating schools; it has allowed us to promote the love of poetry in the classroom in a profound way; and most importantly, as listeners it has also given us so many magical moments hearing the emotion and passion of young voices reciting their favourite poem.


2020 Poetry BY Heart France Winners

Alexander Gliott (Josephine Baker Finds Herself) – First Prize – LISG American Section

Morgan Distler (God, A Poem) – Second Prize – Collège Sévigné

Matteo Joyce (Porphyria’s Lover) Lycée Camille Sée and Emma Georges (The Cleaner) Institut Notre Dame – joint Third Prize

Honorable Mentions to Emma Cowen (Dusting the Phone) LISG British Section and Joseph Hanlon (The Journey of the Magi) SIS Sèvres

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Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm

18th June 2020

Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm

During the first phase of the global Covid-19 pandemic, in April and May 2020, Nina Alonso wanted to explore the much-repeated idea that poetry would help us through the crisis. She invited women friends around the world to learn one poem by heart during the lockdown and to video themselves performing it. Nina is exploring the videos and the testimonies of the women involved as part of her research, but she also edited clips from each recitation to create a new video-poem that is a response to the crisis too. In this week’s blogpost, we share Nina’s video (which includes our Director, Julie Blake, reciting T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ rather bleakly) and her thoughts on this activity. 

The women I invited to learn one poem by heart during the confinement are friends or family from different generations (from age 18 to 75) and they come from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, living in different countries in different continents. From Hong Kong, the UK, Brazil, Mauritius, Spain, Uruguay, Palestine, Australia, Luxembourg, France, Colombia, Moldavia, Italy, Luxembourg, Malawi, Chile, USA and Greece, each of us chose poems that felt close to our hearts, meaningful or comforting in different ways during the crisis.

Some of us made video-recordings together, recording our recitations as they were displayed on the screen in online video chat applications. Others just video recorded themselves when they felt the poem was well learnt and well internalised (hopefully for ever). These video recitations are part of a short film that integrates these memories of poetry learning and recitations. And a new poetry composition emerged as lines from the different recitations were put together. The composition is made of poems recited in English, Portuguese, French, Euskera, Spanish, Sign language, Arabic, Italian and Greek.

The outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic made us deal with uncertainty, grief and loneliness, and it made us feel anxious, fearful and sad. We all had the need to stay connected with our loved ones. Like most people in the severe stage of the lockdown, I could not be with my friends and family. Many of my friends were far away and finding new meaningful ways of being connected with them warmed my heart. Being aware of the power of poetry learned by heart and its recitation, the idea of sharing this kind of experience during the crisis made sense.

At the beginning I started to learn a poem by heart with a few friends – one in Brazil, another in Hong Kong, Chile and one in Moldavia. The process of choosing the poems and learning them connected us deeply while also giving us a sense of joy and satisfaction. As I shared what I was doing with other friends, many wanted to do the same, and I encouraged them to learn a poem either by themselves or, as some of them suggested, with their mothers or daughters. I thought we could then link all these experiences together, so I asked these women friends to record themselves reciting their learned poems so I could weave us together in a collaborative poetry video composition.

They all responded enthusiastically. At a time when the search for accomplishment, obtaining material outcomes, recognition and productivity seems to be the drive of contemporary societies, it surprised me that none of the 24 women who sent me their recordings ever asked a single question about the purpose or utility of the initiative. These women clearly understood, without the need of discussion or questioning, Nuccio Ordino’s idea of the usefulness of the useless.

We don’t know what these poems will mean in the future for the women who participated in this project. Maybe some of these women will treasure the poems (or parts of them) in their hearts for ever, and maybe the emotions inspired by the poems or some meanings will develop over time. It would be interesting if we could trace the emergence and development of poetic meaning in what Peter Middleton calls “the long biography of the poem(s)” that these women learned during the Covid 19 pandemic. What we know now from the feedback they shared with me is that they experienced joy and satisfaction while learning the poems, and that being part of a collaborative project that gathered women from different parts of the world and linguistic backgrounds, warmed their hearts, made them feel mutually enriched and proud of their capacities to weave sensitive, peaceful, borderless and non-utilitarian connections.

The experience of learning a poem during confinement, sharing this experience with friends, and then in this great network of women around the world, brought a sense of beauty and union in these difficult times. The challenge of remembering each word gave me new ways to experience poetry. Suddenly each verse started to gain fresh life in everyday activities, popping up in my head when I was cooking, doing household chores or in interactions, and poetry felt engrained in objects and actions that once were felt to be meaningless.

– Aline Federico, Brazil

During these times of social isolation and unrest, it meant a great deal to join a chorus of women, across the globe, in a form of poetic solidarity. I chose the poem ‘My words to you’ by Jean Valentine because it speaks to the language of longing: capturing the distance between us while simultaneously acting as a reminder of how intimate and universal is our shared sense of longing and separation. To learn a poem by heart is to also close the distance between the poet and the reader – to relive the poem and inhabit it – to walk a “poem” in Jean Valentine’s shoes. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity, for the reminder that I’m not alone.

– Chloe Firetto-Toomey, USA

 

Poetry heals and this reminded me of its power. I was very focused when learning the poem by heart and I even copied some lines a few times to help me memorize the lines. I was able to stay away from my phone while learning the poem. At first, I was a bit intimidated by the invitation because I hadn’t recited a poem for a long time but I felt that ‘Wild Geese’ resonated with our experience and I should memorize it. It makes a huge difference when you know you’re reciting to a friend. You want to do it well and not let your friend down. This was a very meaningful experience and I am so glad that I was part of it.

 

Akina Lam, Hong Kong

 

Nina (Dr M.L. Alonso) manages a school library in Spain and trains teachers in developing young people’s engagement with poetry. She has extensive experience in international organizations promoting young people’s engagement with multilingual literature.

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Australian Bush Ballads

11th November 2015

Image Courtesy of Al McKay Personal Collection

Image Courtesy of Al McKay Personal Collection

Australian Al McKay offers a personal reflection on the popularity and impact of the Australian Bush Ballad.

 

How can I take you, in a few words, to the very soul of my patriotism instilled by early Australian poets who so shaped my appreciation of this great island continent?  Poetry by Heart was the essence of my Primary School education; we all recited by rote, either in the schoolroom or at home.  On poets’ wings I was transported to worlds beyond my comprehension.  By the age of ten I had learned, not only of the “old Country’s” poets: Keats, Shelly, Byron and Tennyson but of those quintessentially Australian “Bush Balladists”, Lawson, Mackellar, Paterson, Gordon, Kendall and Anderson.

Their words are forever imprinted into my very being always offering satisfaction.  These early poets developed a style of narration that gained great popularity as they portrayed the early pioneers in their struggles to establish a European foothold on what was a hostile shore but one that they tamed to “take now the fruits of our labour…” (“Pioneers”, Frank Hudson).  Bush ballads became popular late in the 1800s and were published by a Sydney Newspaper, “The Bulletin”.  The poems could be humorous as in O’Brien:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,

In accents most forlorn,

Outside the church, ere Mass began,

One frosty Sunday morn” [1]

and they could be sad when Lawson tells of Harry Dale:

“Now Harry speaks to Rover,

The best dog on the plains,

And to his hardy horses,

And strokes their shaggy manes:

“We’ve breasted bigger rivers

When floods were at their height,

Nor shall this gutter stop us

From getting home tonight!”[2]

Alas poor Harry and Rover drowned! Some poems were evocative of a heritage dominated by England as MacKellar wrote,

“The love of field and coppice,

Of green and shaded lanes.

Of ordered woods and gardens

Is running in your veins,…..

I know but cannot share it

My love is otherwise”[3]

and presented a paradox to be pondered by writers many of whom had little knowledge of that semi-mythical “Bush”.

In like vein, Lawson embraced his different world in the South:

“You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle, and Rose,

Or the three in a bunch if you will;

But I know of a country that gathered all those,

And I love the great land where the Waratah grows,

And the Wattle-bough blooms on the hill.” [4]

But the “Bush” could be a reality for any who chose to mentally explore as does Cuthbertson “down the shadowy reaches” [5] or to commune with those dreaming urbanites like Paterson:

“And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle,

Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street”[6]

The Bush was a romantic almost fantasy world populated by strong, adventurous men on horseback as they battled “drought and flooding rains”[7]

Many ballads are set to a rhythm of galloping horses painting scenes of courageous action:

“He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,

He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,

And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –

It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride” [8]

Bush ballads used common words, were couched in simple rhymes and had little of classical reference.

Many poets expressed a perception of embryonic nationalism, a sense of being a new type of man removed from the constraints of his origins in Britain.  This ethos became popular towards the end of the nineteenth century as the federation of the Colonies into a Commonwealth became a reality.

The early poets came to this new Eden, a virtual paradise where every bird, animal, plant and indigenous peoples were completely unknown to them. Of course issues surrounding colonisation and the treatment of the Aborigine inevitably underpin any present day consideration of Bush poetry but as a young boy growing up I devoured the balladists appreciation of endless beaches, vast forests, deserts, mountains and plains. It was these Australian poets who taught me how to see.  When walking the shores of my youth, I learned from Kendall of:

“The silver-voiced bell-birds, the darlings of day-time,

They sing in September their songs of the May-time”[9]

In this poem he spoke of the different seasons in the South, “their songs of the May-time”, a reference to “Home”, that mythical ancestral Camelot set in England ten thousand miles and six months away.

Unbeknownst to me during those periods of reciting poetry by heart my perception of the nature of things was being enhanced giving me another depth and dimension of emotion.  It was May 1942. I was nine years old, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the war had come to Australia.  One morning I was sitting on a cliff overlooking the river that bounded my home engrossed with the  precision of two sea-eagles gliding in intersecting circles looking for quarry in the waters below when a flash of light drew my attention to squadrons of “War-birds”, fighters and bombers, marshalling in the sky above.  The aircraft came from the safe havens of airfields within a twenty mile radius of my home.  Those Kittyhawks, Hudsons and Beaufighters were freshly camouflaged in jungle green, dressed for their new role in the Pacific.  All were flying to the bases on our northern shores to fight the Enemy.  The analogy of these predators, these birds of prey, was not lost to me. But it was the pilots in their cockpits, new versions of my heroic horsemen, that I longed to join, to emulate and march to war accompanied by the familiar strains of Waltzing Matilda. [10]

Even today Lawson’s words:

“’tis Australia that knows, that her children shall fight while the Waratah grows,

And the Wattle blooms out on the hill”[11] are still ringing in my ears.

Adam Lindsay Gordon’s[12] “Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes” was published at the time of his death in 1870.  He is the only Australian poet whose bust stands in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. His poem, “The Swimmer” became a libretto for a work by Elgar. As he died on that beach his thoughts may have been with horses, those horses of his steeple chasing years:

“Oh! brave white horses! you gather and gallop,

The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins ;

Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop

In your hollow backs, on your high arched manes.”

In her Christmas speech of 1992  Queen Elizabeth quoted from his works:”Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in one’s own..” but failed to acknowledge the author.

Some of my ancestors came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 and it was these European pioneers who carved out our modern civilization. Hudson paints a picture of men at work in the forests to which I relate for all are similar to so many photographs in my family albums.

“Our axes rang in the woodlands,

Where the gaudy bush-birds flew,

And we turned the loam of our new-found home,

Where the eucalyptus grew.”

Sometimes, when looking at my grandchildren, I think as he did:

“Take now the fruit of our labour,

Nourish and guard it with care,

For our youth is spent, and our backs are bent.

And the snow is on our hair.”[13]

when I consider my own mortality

That our nation was forged with unequalled endurance is unquestioned; that our children will grow with the wisdom instilled by learning poetry by heart that has stood me in good stead is arguable but initiatives like the UK’s Poetry By Heart suggest a new generation might once again engage with a very old idea.

To conclude with Australian memories it was a woman, Maybanke Anderson, who penned a stirring testimony to Australian men:

”A sturdy gift was the Ironbark

To the men who built Australia.

Walls and roof for the homes they made,

While the billy boiled and the children played,

Rest and peace in the leafy shade,

Love of the gum tree ne’er shall fade

From the mem’ry of Australia.” [14]

References

[1] John O’Brien 1878-1952 Said Hanrahan.

[2] Henry Lawson 1877-1922 Ballad of the Drover.

[3] Dorothea MacKellar 1885-1968 My Country.

[4] Henry Lawson Waratah and Wattle.

[5] James Lister Cuthbertson  1893 The Australian Sunrise.

[6] “Banjo” Paterson 1864-1941 Clancy of the Overflow.

[7] Dorothea Mackellar 1885–1968 My Country.

[8] “Banjo” Paterson The Man from Snowy River.

[9] Henry Kendall 1839-1882  Bell Birds.

[10] A B “Banjo” Paterson 1895 Waltzing Matilda.

[11] Henry Lawson  Waratah and Wattle.

[12] Adam Lindsay Gordon 1870 Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes.

[13] Frank Hudson  “Pioneers” The Songs of Manly Man and other Verses”, London 1908.

[14] Maybanke Anderson 1845-1927  To the Iron Bark.

PBH Al About the author: Al McKay was born on a farm in a remote part of Tasmania 82 years ago. His tertiary education was in  Sydney and London.  Primarily he is an eye surgeon and lecturer but concurrently has followed careers as an officer and consultant to the RAAF, a cattle farmer, a landscape gardener and a yachtsman whilst still finding time to write.

He has written memoirs on surgical technology and of his youth serving as an infantryman.He has authored and produced a surgical DVD. He has had the same wife for almost 60 years.  Little would have been achieved without her.

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Helping Students Connect With Poetry

24th August 2015

Dr Aisha Spencer from the University of the West Indies reflects on exploring poetry with Jamaican High School students.

In late 2014, I was invited to assist a group of secondary school students in rural Jamaica, who were said to be having serious difficulty with understanding and responding to poetry. These students were in their final year of high school and were about to sit their Caribbean Secondary Examinations Certification examinations (CSEC) (which would be equivalent to the UK’s GCSE examinations).

 

The group comprised predominantly Creole speakers, who lacked fluency in the use of Standard English. Additionally, they were a part of a non-traditional school environment, which, in Jamaica, meant that they were seen as low academic achievers from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. These factors led to the students being labelled as ‘unable to do poetry’. But, what makes any student ‘unable to do poetry’? Typically, an evaluation like this is solely based on how well students are able to meet academic requirements. Classroom instruction geared towards helping students to be successful in their external examinations tends to focus heavily on very technical aspects of understanding a poem, rather than on the use of various strategies to help students personally connect with and understand the poems they read. An understanding of the technical aspects of a poem is important, but very often, we start at the wrong place when introducing students to the world of poetry. Examinations play an important role in helping students to matriculate so that they can gain access to various institutions or into the world of work, but as was argued by philosophers like Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey over a century ago, education ought to be a much wider and more experiential process which cannot itself be solely contained in the act of sitting a test for one to three hours. There is nothing a student is unable to do when he or she meaningfully connects with the subject matter or task at hand.

As I thought long and hard about how to help these students better understand and respond to the poems on their English Literature syllabus, my mind became activated by Louise Rosenblatt’s characterisation of literary interpretation as occurring through a transaction between the reader and the text. Rosenblatt describes the literary process as occurring through the prior knowledge and experience readers bring to the text as they internalize the textual details present. I began to reflect on the actual classroom experience of poetry many young people have today, both locally and internationally. These experiences are often quite static, focusing on the teacher as the crystal ball holder who contains all the ‘right’ ways of reading, interpreting and responding to the poems being studied in the classroom and who in turn passes on this ‘knowledge’ to his/her students. I therefore wanted to alter the ways students were ‘expected’ to react to poetry in the classroom by surrounding the student with that which was already familiar and by utilizing that which was already a positive feature of the student’s context. I wanted to allow students to ‘enter’ the poem (as spoken of by Milner and Milner (2008) as the way through which to introduce students to the literary content to be explored) based on the personal connections they were able to make with the poem, rather than solely based on their knowledge of the technical structures of the poem, such as the literary devices present or the traditional rhythmic patterns used in the poem. This kind of knowledge, I felt, could come after students were allowed to first establish a point of connection with the poem; a reason for wanting to read and explore the poem.

Many of the artistic and cultural experiences of students in Jamaica are framed by the deep-rooted presence of orality and music in the nation. Researchers (C. Brown(1970); Bernhart and Wolf, 2004) have already shed light on the intricate relationship between music and poetry, but few of us, as educators, understand the value of the ‘sound’ of poetry in helping students to truly appreciate, understand and respond to poems. One of the sub genres of poetry which pulls both orality and music together is Dub Poetry, a form indigenous to Jamaica, which emerged in the mid-twentieth century out of the well-known genre of Reggae music. The results were amazing! The students engaged with poems from poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Mikey G. Smith, Mutabaruka, Lillian Allen, some young local amateur dub poets, and many other dub poets across the globe. The oral component of dub poetry exposed the students to their history, culture and identity, and helped them to listen and respond to the poem with ease because students were already comfortable with this oral context. The musical component, which has its roots predominantly in the genre of reggae music, awakened their appetites for further engagement with the poetic by allowing them to evaluate the use of proverbs and other cultural forms present in the poems, which were embedded within their society’s oral tradition.

Rather than have students focus solely on dub poetry however, the dub poems were used as a tool through which to engage the students in other forms of poetry, including free verse poems, sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, and other types of poetry. Through focus on the ‘sound’ of the dub poetry and the ways in which this ‘sound’ was articulated by the poet on the page, students became skilful at analysing how sound can be produced in other poems through various rhythmic patterns, the specific arrangement of stanzas and lines, the placement of words, the use of literary devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, puns and so on. They were given the opportunity to create their own dub poetry, recite dub poems and other forms of poetry and were also asked to articulate the similarities and differences in sound present in various parts of a poem based on the use of such patterns as the iambic pentameter, the pattern of lineation in certain sonnets, internal and external rhyming patterns and many of the technical elements of prosody often present on the CSEC English Literature examination. Students also examined the use of tone and the power of the speaker’s persona and voice in representing events, situations and emotions within the poem. Through moments of intense and close listening to the ‘sound’ of the poem and through a number of recitations both of the poems being studied and their own creative pieces, the meanings of so many poems suddenly came alive and their figurative meanings no longer seemed so ‘impossible’ to comprehend. Students were able to comprehend, talk and write about their interpretation of the poem’s content based on their understanding not simply of ‘what’ was being said, but also of ‘how’ meaning was articulated in the poem. This played a crucial role in helping them to appreciate, understand and respond to the poems on their syllabus and eventually, in their exam.

In my interviews with these students about the use of dub poetry to help them better connect with other forms of poetry, the students expressed above all else, how much listening to and ‘sounding out’ the poems helped them to better interpret the poem on the page. Some students also shared that by remembering the poem and the way certain parts of the poem functioned, they were able to note similar patterns in other poems they read. By the end of the term, the students’ test results improved significantly, their attitudes were positively transformed, and more importantly, they no longer feared poetry but saw it as something to which they could respond, once they found the right point through which to personally connect with the poem.

 

Dr. Aisha Spencer is a lecturer in Language and Literature Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Kingston, Jamaica. She has been teaching language and literature for eighteen years and is especially passionate about finding innovative material and alternative forms of literary pedagogy to help children and young people better connect with and enjoy all genres of literature. She is the co-editor of a recently published anthology of Caribbean poetry, entitled ‘Give the Ball to the Poet’ : A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry. Her areas of research interest are in Gender and Nationalism, Postcolonial Literatures, and Literature Education.

 

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Poetry By Heart and a View from Russia

20th February 2015

Mariano Mantel – Kremlin seen from the Patriarchal Bridge Creative Commons

Moscow State Institute of International Relations student, Nellie Olphert, offers some thoughts on the fate of poetry and memorisation in Russia.

 

‘…And with the human race anew

I am family through you.’

‘My Journey’ by Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (1902-1991)

 In Russian by heart  is naizust which roughly means “coming from the lips”. I would say that the etymology carries an implication of words emerging from the depths of one’s personality. And memorised verse does, figuratively speaking, become dissolved in one’s blood, ideally merging with its new “owner”.

The reproduction of such cultural phenomena halts when the social demand for them falls. When a society stops memorising poetry, the latter ceases to appear and exist in the way it used to and could. In Russia the vitality of rhyme, metre or vers libre never really faded, and even less so – the mnemonic culture. It is partly the result of the great tradition of the so-called Russian ‘literature-centrism’.

Formed only towards the close of the XVIII century, Russian secular poetry is relatively young (oral folk tradition is yet another story). Its Golden age was seen at the beginning of the XIX century. Back then poetry was at the heart of things; both a craze and a blessing, it led to verse memorisation piercing all spheres of life, public and private: from nursery rooms and finishing schools to grand saloons and ballrooms. It mirrored the entire palette of human emotions and currents of thought. That meant endless reading and creating, sharing in friendship albums, declamation amongst friends and in public, quoting and recognising quotations in everyday speech, since memorised poetry is also a socially significant recognition symbol: of likeness, unity, learning, etc. Poets were, in the words of Alexander Pushkin, the “rulers of minds”. Numerous forbidden (most commonly for political reasons) texts circulated on scraps of paper in pencil and were instantaneously memorised and spread onwards. Before the Decembrist uprising Pushkin’s unpublished verses continued to exist in the minds of just about every insurrectionist. The interest for poetry during the ensuing years resembles a sine wave up to the October revolution when a “flip” of the social strata occurred and an entire unique class of people was swept away – an irretrievable loss.

Young Pushkin taking his first exam before the great poet Derzhavin (1815)

The Bolsheviks at first proclaimed learning by heart a form of bourgeois oppression, but soon the “right” poems were selected, that is, those containing criticism of the tsarist absolute monarchy. Many of them were the very ones prohibited during the XIX century. Literature in the Soviet times was one of the most important subjects at school, present in the schedule from the first to the last year, and learning verse by heart was its part and parcel. Though phrases from popular films were an infinitely greater part of the vernacular, children throughout the country could be heard bantering with each other using crammed excerpts from verse and prose, and any girl that finished eight classes of a Soviet school could recite Tatiana’s letter (“Eugene Onegin”) from memory and not forget her lines after the first quatrain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6_kyjggnwLU

Both the dominant and the dissident cultures used verse as a weapon in the battle for human minds. It is a double edged weapon, since truly great poetry is what Umberto Eco called an “open work”: an invitation to collaborate, to activate the potential of one’s cogitative faculties to the limit. Memorised poetry creates the “citadel of the mind” which, in my subjective opinion, happens to be its vocation and most genuine form of existence.

The penalty for the diffusion of forbidden texts became incomparably harsher than it was in the tsarist days. As a result, literature, and poetry in particular due to its inherent characteristics, became of an exceptional value – life was at stake. The story of Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem “Requiem” is very characteristic. (Her poem  In Memoriam, July 19, 1914 can be read in the Poetry By Heart First World War showcase – http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/)  The first “drafts” of ‘Requiem’ were created as Akhmatova spent seventeen months, day after day, waiting in prison queues in Leningrad after her son was arrested by the secret police; one day a woman behind her whispered:  ‘Could one ever describe this?’ and Akhmatova answered, ‘I can.’ But she had to keep it locked in her head for around 25 years before she allowed herself to trust paper with it.

Kuzma_Petrov-Vodkin.Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1922) Public Domain 

The mémoires of former GULAG inmates contain numerous testimonies of poetry’s significance for human survival – for the preservation of mental health and the private inner world, since the sole space of freedom that is undividedly one’s own lies in the mind. The mnemonic nature of poetry gives its “possessor” the sensation of freedom and at times even of independence from life’s vicissitudes. GULAG camps were in a sense the best poetry school – no-one would commit your verse to memory if they sensed a single false note. The first anthology of GULAG prisoners’ poetry was published in 2005.

Evgenia Ginzburg in her book ‘Journey into the Whirlwind’ describes the first meeting with her son – the future writer Vasily Aksyonov – since his arrest: ‘I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us…Now I understand what a Mother is – you can recite your favourite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left of.’

Today poetry surrounds most of us from our very birth, here and there on different levels, so memorising at times is really recalling or putting lines together. That also has to do with Russian literature’s high level of intertextuality. And once it’s learnt it’s quite impossible to forget. Our greatest poets captured things most vital and stirring in ingenious ways; these thoughts and means of expressing them are profoundly Russian (or rather they actually shaped and formulated what Russian truly is and should be…) and at the same time universally existential.

 

A Ukrainian and a New Zealander by descent, Nellie Olphert was born in Moscow in 1994. She is currently studying international journalism and public relations at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and will be graduating later this year with a thesis on dissident media in the Soviet Union.

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