Poetry By Heart Blog

Kickstart Poetry By Heart on National Poetry Day

5th October 2021

This Thursday it’s the annual poetry bonanza of National Poetry Day in the UK and this year’s theme is choice. This theme couldn’t be more relevant for Poetry By Heart which all starts with pupils choosing a poem. Over at the National Poetry Day website you’ll see our friends there have launched an array of resources and toolkits, including posters and lesson plans – plenty of free stuff – to encourage your students to think about how they create, read and respond to poetry.

National Poetry Day is also a great day to think about poetry beyond its demands for exams and assessment. It’s a day to think about the big wide life of poetry, for enjoyment, for sharing, for talking about, for creativity and for wellbeing. Teachers have often told us that Poetry By Heart helps children and young people to engage with poetry in different ways, creating a real buzz about the school, developing confidence in the shyest pupils, and creating a more personal opportunity to own, inhabit and share their chosen poems. Last week’s blog entry written by a class at Linden Lodge School – providing education and support to sensory and/or visually impaired children – attests to the importance of poetry for all.

The team at Poetry By Heart have contributed two activities to the National Poetry Day collection. One is for primary pupils, the other for secondary, and both are all about selecting a poem from our online anthologies and then developing active approaches to speaking it out loud. The first activity, for Key Stages 1 and 2, could get you started with Laura Richards’ comic poem ‘Eletelephony’. The second, for older students in Key Stages 3, 4 and 5, focuses on Paul Dunbar’s poem ‘We Wear The Mask’. Click on either image below to be directed to the activity’s PDF file.

 

NPD KS1+2

 

 

NPD KS3, 4 +5

If those don’t pique your interest, here are some more ideas for kickstarting your National Poetry Day that we shared in our fortnightly Poetry Forum last week. We’d love to hear what you get up to this National Poetry Day, whether you try out one of the ideas here or have other fantastic plans lined up. So far our favourite is a small rural primary school in Suffolk where the class are all bringing in a favourite poem to share over mugs of hot chocolate. Hot chocolate and poetry! We’d love to hear your stories – Tweet-sized with pics over on @poetrybyheart or write us a longer piece for the blog!

1. Speak a favourite/random poem
Rehearse and simply speak your own favourite poem in assembly, form group or at the start or end of a lesson. You could say why it’s your favourite poem too. Or flip it and get pupils sharing their favourite poems. And for absolutely zero preparation on the day, hit the random poem button at the very bottom of the homepage, see what you get and read it aloud – or to keep the randomness within the KS2-3 poem selections, click the yellow random poem square at the bottom of any poem in the Mix It Up collection.

2. Learn a poem together
You could try one of our Learn-Along poem activities (you will need to register for free to access these). These take one poem and one class and you all have a go at learning and performing the poem in one lesson. The powerpoint resource gives you all the slides you need to take your class through the poem, with teacher instructions in the notes field. The activity invites everyone to join in with you, repeating the poem aloud together in different ways, with visual memory cues and blank fills to help work towards a memorised performance. Possible in one lesson? You bet it is!
Learn-Along 7+
Learn-Along 11+
If you’d like us to run a free Zoom workshop where we run through these activities together for teachers/staff at your school, contact us via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk or call 0117 905 5338.

3. Introduce Poetry By Heart
Use our launch slides to introduce Poetry By Heart to your class, poetry club or year group. The 5 minute film of this year’s Finalists’ Celebration Event at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, is on slide 4 – great to show where your pupils could be next summer. Sometimes security filters will block the video from playing so test it first and ask an IT technician to unblock it if necessary. It’s just a Vimeo link – nothing nasty!

4. Set October’s calendar challenge for Black History month
Check out the October challenge in the Poetry By Heart digital calendar. The October poem is Eloise Greenfield’s poem ‘Harriet Tubman’, about the American women who escaped enslavement and then rescued many other people. The challenge is to learn and perform this poem for other people as part of Black History month learning and celebration, or any other poem in the Poetry By Heart collection that recounts an aspect of Black History. You might have already had your paper copy in the post; if not, register now and we’ll send you one!

 

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What Poetry Means To Us

23rd September 2021

Linden Lodge School is a specialist college in South London, educating students aged between two and nineteen with vision and/or sensory impairment. Their student Lillie submitted a performance video for a self-written poem based around the character Puck from the William Shakespeare play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. She received a commendation and was invited to perform at the national finalists celebration event in 2021. This blog was collectively written by the Minerva 3 class at Linden Lodge to explore their thoughts on the significance of poetry to them.

 

Poetry is something that brings us together as a group. It is mindful and relaxing and engages the brain. It is satisfying to put words together. Writing poetry helped us particularly during the first lockdown, as it gave us a positive purpose. The world feels different and poetry helps us adjust to the changes. Poetry gives us a link to our own past and that of others. It let us think about the things we missed while appreciating what we still had. We think that often important poetry comes from key points in history. World War I poetry comes from people who had a lot to process and lockdown had some of this for us.

Poetry is also an act of trying to change the world and sometimes that is what we do with our poems. We think about who we are and what we want to be. We think about the rights we have and the rights we and others need.

Poetry makes us happy because it is a new way to think about the things we love. Poems can be funny and joyful. It’s amazing to hear the talent of our classmates. We were blown away the first time we wrote poetry together. It’s a conversation of the senses that allows us to understand and feel each other’s emotions. It’s a different way of speaking to each other. We can reach new audiences. We develop our language and means of expression when we continue to write poetry.

As visually impaired people, poetry is completely different. It depends on your level of vision but, on the whole, we experience things differently. For example, if we were writing about Spring, a sighted person might talk about visual elements such as the colour of flowers whereas a blind writer might focus on the feel or smell of them. Poetry is a way for us to convey the diversity of visual impairment. There are lots of assumptions made about blind people but we all have unique experiences. Poetry is how we express ourselves as individuals within a community.

 


You can watch Lillie’s performance of her self-written poem ‘Puck’ by clicking on the image above

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Low cost, high impact – why we took part in Poetry By Heart

13th May 2021

Rowena Kaminski – Head of School at Tilstock Church of England Primary School – writes about about how taking part in Poetry By Heart has helped Tilstock’s children and their families, including children in Key Stage 1. We love all your stories about how Poetry By Heart has made a difference for your pupils and welcome more contributions to the blog if you’d like to write about your experience. Talk to us at info@poetrybyheart.org.uk for the guidelines.

 

We have a high rate of SEN – about 36% – and a high rate of pupil premium children at Tilstock Church of England Primary School. We are a lovely small school (81 pupils) in a beautiful rural area, but rural deprivation is a real thing. Our children do not have access to theatres, youth clubs, museums and if parents do not drive, how likely is it that they’re going to get to a library over 20 miles away?

Our children generally come into school with low starting points and, consequently, have very low self-esteem. To ask them to get up and speak in front of an audience is a big ask. They may not have grown up with their opinions valued or maybe even as part of a meaningful conversation – often our children will go home and sit on their tablet or Xbox. Conversations are few and far between and as a result their spoken language is limited and undervalued.

Children’s literacy skills are a huge priority for us. We have spent considerable time and training on the teaching of high-quality phonics to support our lowest 20% of readers. We know that vocabulary and the spoken word has a huge impact on our children’s writing. We want our children to be confident to not only use language, but to understand it. One child did not know what the word ‘proud’ meant.

I did some research into how we can develop spoken language in a way that would support the English curriculum across the school (spoken language, listening and attention, vocabulary, drama). Poetry was identified as one of the ways that we could develop the importance of language in our children’s lives. I felt that poetry was really underused and not something that appeared on our regular CPD sessions. Poetry books were not the chosen texts for our pupils or staff.

I found the Poetry by Heart competition online. It is simple, no new resources needed, apart from the website and the children’s voices. This meant it was low cost and high impact – the benefits of poetry were obvious, so we knew that we were not taking any big risks. Children would be celebrated for their efforts and build their self-esteem. During lockdown, Poetry By Heart meant being part of a community event where the whole school could take part – this was very important to us – and it was easily accessible. The lifelong learning element was also important – how we visualise what we want for our children, not only when they leave us, but for life. Once the poem has been learned, it will not be easy to forget.

Introducing more poetry into our school day, has without a doubt, helped to develop early literacy skills. Poetry has also enabled conversations and confidence around terms such as similes and metaphors. It has enabled our children to develop a love for literacy.

Poetry is very manageable for our children, who are generally ‘put off’ by huge chunks of text. We have a lot of children for whom English is an Additional Language and children with speech and language difficulties, so being such a small amount of writing, poetry is less intimidating. It has been wonderful to see Polish children in our community recite poems in English that they have learnt by heart.  The classic poems have exposed our children to literature from our shared cultural heritage. There is also a safety with poetry – children feel safe that there are no right or wrong answers when discussing their responses to a poem. For emotional support, poetry has provided an opportunity for them to explore their personal experiences and to write about themselves and their feelings (this was important during lockdown).

But also, it is enjoyable. The national curriculum tells us that pupils should ‘establish an appreciation and love of reading’, and as a school we believe that, and poetry should be a big part of that. We have really enjoyed having fun with poems. The children have been very creative, adding their own actions and personality to them.

We have had a fantastic response to Poetry By Heart from the children, staff and parents. We have had children as young as 4 entering the competition, memorising a poem that took me ages to learn. We had children with SEN and EAL learning poems and performing them beautifully. For staff, using the Poetry By Heart website has made it simple to ‘drop’ poetry into the school day. We now have a selection of poetry books from the library to enhance our selection. Teachers and pupils are regularly dipping into these books now. We are using the speaking and listening curriculum to assess the children’s performances and having the recordings of their poetry performances also means that we can sort of baseline them. We can track where they are now and follow this journey not only through the year but through their whole time with us.


 

Rowena Kaminski is Head of School at Tilstock C of E Primary School, part of the Marches Academy Trust in Shropshire.

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Poetry By Foot

18th March 2021

We asked PBH team member Mike Shortis to write about how poetry memorisation has gone from being something he enjoys as a creative pursuit to becoming a useful and reliable tool for physical pursuits. Here he focuses on how poetry found its way into his long-distance walking.

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Mike stands in Hondarribia, Spain, moments before crossing over the Txingudi bay into France. September 2013.

 

I grew up in a family of people who are all mystified by words, although each in our own way. I enjoyed poems as a child inasmuch as I enjoyed and appreciated the creative problem of making words rhyme, but if it wasn’t related to animals then my attention rarely held.

The first poem I remember learning just for myself is ‘Nature’s First Green Is Gold’ by Robert Frost, and I would have been about 17. I read it in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and I had to stop to write it down. Around the same time, a family friend happened to play me a song on the guitar that I hadn’t heard since I was 5. On hearing the lyrics, the sense of absolute recall to childhood was near-supernatural. This was when I realised that poetry and song, as well as being beautiful in their own right, are extremely effective tools for storing and recreating lived experience. I began to carry a notebook to write down poems and quotations, either for the memories they invoked or the sense of calm that came from knowing I could keep something so beautiful with me in my head at all times.

What I’d describe as an embodied use of poetry is something that I first discovered some years later, when I decided to walk along the north coast of Spain into France, from Oviedo to Lourdes.

The mental environment brought on by the physical constraints of daily walking was new to me. In the average day of walking 25-30km alone, there is very little decision-making to do. As long as you have water and follow the path, all that remains is to put one foot in front of another and repeat until sunset.

In this way the mind is oddly free from the normal state of constant decision-making, and you’re often surprised by where your attention goes when there are no decisions left to make. You may find yourself flitting between forgotten memories and impressions, such as watching hail from a classroom window as a 6 year old, or sudden revelations about the immediate natural environment. Realising that those are cork-oak leaves you’re seeing, and not holly, for example.

Often you hypnotise yourself with the rhythm of your own footsteps. The awareness of this sound is gradual, until you suddenly realise that all you’re hearing is the steady roll of your boots on the trail. Once it’s clear that your one simple goal will be realised by living and moving in meter for 5 weeks, spoken poetry suggests itself naturally as an accompaniment.

At some point on the way I picked up hiking poles. These took the weight off my back, sped up my pace and put down a layer of syncopated tapping over the rolling of bootsteps. The resulting speed and intensity of my walking trance meant that if you were a horse, sheepdog, vulture or hazel stand on the north coast of Spain in August 2013, you may well have seen me come lurching out from around a country bend, tapping away with my walking sticks in a daze and sporadically breaking out into every poem that my mind successfully dredged from the depths of memory. However this might have appeared to the bystander, it was a state of bliss to be in, and it changed my relationship to those poems and poets, as well as poetry in general.

First off, having anything at all that you can fix your focus on for a long time is extremely useful when doing repetitive physical activity. Sometimes you turn to the poem just for the joy of it, when it fits your mood or your surroundings. At other times you know you can take refuge in your poem as a mantra when your mind or body is tired; that is to say that sometimes it’s something to fill the mind when you’ve exhausted all other topics of thought, and at other times it saves you because you have 3km left as the sun’s going down and it’s the one thing that will pull you along. If I compare walking with sailing, poetry is at times the dolphin playing in your bow-wave, and at other times it’s the wind behind you.

Constant living reliance on a poem as a tool brings newfound gratitude for the toolmaker, as well as empathy for what persuaded them to create it in the first place. Constant turning over of the poem can yield new interpretations and inflections. Some days it comes out like a prayer; a call to those mysterious sources of strength that hide within ourselves, each other and the world. Some days your poem comes out like a fortune being read. Once in a while you have a day where something is gnawing at you and you’re not sure what it is until you say your poem, and by your tone and breath you realise instantly that you are tired/thirsty/annoyed and you can then solve these problems.

 

Mike Shortis has worked on and off for Poetry By Heart since 2013. He can normally be found studying languages, writing up his travel journals or planning his next trip.

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Wild Writing in the time of Corona or how poetry is getting me through the pandemic!

4th March 2021

In our blogpost on 18th June 2020, Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm, Nina Alonso wrote about her video project involving women from around the world learning a poem by heart and sharing it as a way of getting through the pandemic. The poetry mattered as much as the heartfelt connection with other people. A year on, our endurance is being tested to its outer limits even as the vaccination programme begins to offer some new hope. So, we are delighted to share with you this week the work Cassie Flint has been doing with her ‘Wild Writing in the time of Corona’ poetry writing project, taking to YouTube and Facebook in the pandemic to bring the possibilities of poetry to all who want to connect with it in these difficult days. 

 

In the last five years at the end of what feels like a lifetime of teaching English, I ran a Poetry Club in my school. We also were regulars in the wonderful Poetry by Heart competition. We would meet for about half an hour each week at lunchtime and would do all sorts of poetry writing but what emerged from that was what I called ‘Wild Writing’. Essentially this was how to make a poem from a series of what you might call random prompts that came from the students. Sometimes we would do this collaboratively and the students, who came along, grew to love it. I then took that onto a Creative Writing Course I ran as an Adult Education evening class where again the adults found that they were amazed at what could be achieved with very little input and a short amount of time to be creative in.

As time passed and the coronavirus came and seemed to be reluctant to leave, I looked for ways to keep my own creativity going. I also wanted very much to include and invite as diverse a range of people to join in as I could. I imagined I would do a few workshops, with a video. I enlisted the help of those I knew and set up the page on YouTube and Facebook so that anyone could view it and respond and I made it as multilingual as I could. At one point there were translations of the contributors’ poems into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Korean, Hindi and Urdu. People joined in and also gave feedback on each other’s writing: it was unfailingly positive and with a poem a day, the body of poetry soon grew. I then introduced a do something different day and on the seventh day of each week, I introduced a new poetic form, or a dedication to a national or international event, or an awareness week. There are now videos on everything from slam poetry to sestinas, haikus to curtal sonnets!

The premise is simple. I give a list of six subjects or items. For example:
1. Postcard
2. Radio
3. Wet weather
4. A group of people with a purpose
5. A shoreline
6. An element

Against each item, you write whatever comes into your mind when you see that word, so making your own. What would you write for each one, a word or phrase is all you need and it needs to be done quickly. This is what I came up with…

1. Postcard – a postcard to a friend
2. Radio- a live broadcast of a Hindi chanting
3. Wet weather- drizzle
4. A group of people with a purpose – people going to swim
5. A shoreline – the tip of India
6. An element- air

Everyone has a different list, obviously. Then comes the trick. You look at the list and see how you could combine those words or the ideas behind them into a poem. This is what I ended up writing…

Postcard Poem
Dear Charlie,
It’s hard to tell you on a postcard all that I can see,
But I’m here where the end of India meets the oceans,
Jumbled, raucous, heaving at the edges, Kanyakumari.
Since five singing has circled the air like ribbons, echoey high Tamil voices
Holding notes, hallelujahs, as a slower, deep voice answers
Against the eternal metronome of the gently ebbing waves.
Small, wide boats with eyes on their elegant prows, their work done, line up on the shore.
While later come the families, wading into to the waters, fully clothed
Like gods and goddesses I think, realising they’re home.
No space. Much love to you. Kiss kiss.

There was always the caveat that you didn’t have to use all six. I suggested that they try to get at least four in. The form is completely up to the writer. Some people like to be descriptive, others to tell a story. It can rhyme or not but the essence here is to do it quickly, so what emerges is in a sense very unpolished, but that is the wildness of the process. A contributor linked it in a way to automatic writing, such as was coined by the surrealist poets, but I think generally there is a strong element of crafting that creeps into the process. Some people like to edit their poems and I also suggest that the process is enhanced by reading your poem back to yourself, to hear what it sounds like. Curiously, having been a student of the critic F. R. Leavis and hearing him lecture on the virtues of poetry being read out loud, this simple act of using your phone to record your own voice has been oddly comforting. You hear the rhythms, the flow of your words and that is in itself, I find, an uplifting experience.


Cassie Flint writes poetry and works at the University of Sunderland, helping to train English teachers. She also has a role as a British Council Schools Ambassador. She has taught English for all her life and describes herself as an inveterate traveller, loves poetry and literature and the way it brings people and different cultures together. She can be contacted via email or via the ‘Wild Writing’ project page on Facebook.

Cassie also reflects on her experience visiting Pakistan via the British Council-run programme Connecting Classrooms in an article for The Guardian, January 2015.

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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. 

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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.

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P is for Poetry

12th November 2020

In our blogpost today, we hear from Naomi Cortes about her thriving poetry programme for primary schools, P is for Poetry. There are lots of great tips in here about working with poetry aloud with a class – from making the first moment when you read a poem magical, to warming up voices and confidence with tongue twisters, and having fun with a whole class performance of a poem. Remember – whole class performances can be entered for the Poetry BY Heart Celebration competition and we’d love to see more! Talk to us about how to get started. But first, here’s Naomi…

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Tell us about your P is for Poetry programme

In the morning I wake up and I say, “Ms Naomi, today’s a poetry day!” And off I trot with poems in hand – contemporary and classical, narrative and rhyming, nonsense or acrostic, haiku or sonnet, from all around the world.

Every week my poetry programme – P is for Poetry – engages with over 600 children in three Southwark primary schools. I share the power of words with pupils from Early Years through to Key Stages 1 and 2. The children reflect the diversity found within any city school – additional languages, varying abilities, disadvantaged backgrounds – but all with a need to express themselves, and through poetry they are able to do this with me.

What kind of moment do you create for poetry?

Magical! It has to be just right, that first moment when I bring a new poem to a class. I have one chance to pitch it perfectly. I would have read this poem to myself a couple of times… But out loud? No. So, this is the moment I have to connect a child with the power of poetry. I ask my children to close or cover their eyes and they know now is the time. All they have to think about are the words and images of the poem I am about to share, and the feelings it is evoking within them. And then, we share with the others in our class how our poem makes us feel, how it resonates with each one of us.

This is a huge part of the magic, and it’s my most challenging task: to ensure that every single child connects with the poem I’ve presented; that they can relate to the words, the theme, the tone, the expression within the poet’s own creativity; that they think to themselves, “Yes, I understand this,” and they feel ownership of the words placed before them. This is the starting point, where we will all leap together into the world of the poet’s vision.

How do you help children to really connect with the poem?

A visual language that works with the written word is vital to enabling all children to have a relationship with poetry. Whether an action is reflecting the meaning of a word or phrase, or is telling the audience how it makes us feel, this added form of expression encourages pupils who may feel a little reluctant to speak the words out loud. Including every child is a key to success, and being aware of each child’s method of learning is what inspires me. It’s so much fun, bringing this visual language to life. Sometimes an action can be very literal and I might say, “Give me something a bit scrummy.” Pupils will then take the imagery of that word further, and create something quite imaginative and complex. That is an absolute gift that adds another level of understanding and gives the children other ways of expressing what’s within the work.

How do you make it fun?

I have approximately twenty-five minutes with each class, so I have to make a big impression quickly, and create a fun environment which encourages all the children to want to learn and engage with poetry in their own way. This is where my experience and understanding of theatre comes centre-stage. Starting from Tongue Twister Challenges and the inclusive Venga-Venga Game, I am able to set the scene: a safe place where we can all learn something new, together. Performing poetry for the children with enthusiasm and dynamic interaction places them in front-row seats for the Ms Naomi show, the hottest seat in school that day!

What do young people get from performing poems?

Pupils enjoy the challenge of a new poem, and when I introduce their “Class Poem” – the one they will be exploring, learning and performing – there is always a huge cheer. Here is their opportunity to contribute to a poem which is just for them. Every Class Poem is a poem that’s “new” to me, that I haven’t taught before. During our time together we explore the ideas and the feelings of the poem, and incorporate all of this into our own expression of its meaning. Using gestures and movement, intonation and articulation, each child enjoys this expressive way of engaging with their poem. I encourage them to be bold with their choices and believe in their abilities to perform in front of others. This confidence grows in differing ways, from raising a hand in class, to sharing their ideas about a word or an action, to standing in front of others, with no text in front of them, performing an entire poem from memory. The children find that they enjoy the acting and the challenge of remembering the words and actions.

Recent months have obviously been very unsettling for children, but I have found that poetry has been a wonderful gift for them. Discovering techniques to deal with the difficulties we face has become so important, and pupils are able to lose themselves in the world of poetry and find calmness amongst it all. They tell me that, “Remembering a poem and the actions that go with it helps me to feel calm,” and, “When I sit on my own and think about my class poem it relaxes me.”

And what’s in it for you?!

I get a huge sense of achievement watching a class of thirty children embark on a fantastic voyage with a poem – watching them realise the worlds of their imaginations, their “lightbulb” moment as they clearly see a word, and their confidence as they share with others the power of expression through words. I love doing what I do in my poetry programme because I see it has an impact: it empowers children to use their voices to make sure that they are heard.

Find out more on my YouTube channel and my website naomicortes.com

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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. 

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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.

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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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Memorising and Performing Poetry in Film

11th June 2020

In this week’s blogpost, David Whitley explores representations of poetry recitation and performance in a range of popular films. Head over to the Learning Zone to find clips of poems being recited in films for pupils to explore at home or in school. How many others can they find and what are they doing there?

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Film and TV drama have long been vital sites in our culture offering a range of insights into the value memorised poems may hold still for us.  Among many examples from popular film drama you might recall: W.E.Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’ as the centrepiece of the film of the same name about Nelson Mandela’s attempt to unite post-apartheid South Africa; the recitation of W.H.Auden’s ‘Stop All the Clocks’ providing a scene of unforgettable emotional weight at the centre of Four Weddings and a Funeral; and apt quotations from poems at key moments providing dramatic focus in various episodes of the Inspector Morse series and its spin-offs.

The Morse example is perhaps particularly interesting, since the image of having extensive knowledge of memorised poetry to call upon is positioned ambivalently in the series. It is seen as a cultural marker of cleverness and elite education; but it is also a significant mental resource in problem solving, enabling connections between things that seem initially obscure. “Poetry recitation solves crimes” – it’s not something you’ll hear the Justice Secretary say very often! But the general principle the Morse films draw on – poetry developing capacity for lateral thinking – is nevertheless a sound one, with potential value in a wide variety of different contexts.

There is an important sub-category of films staging poetry recitation that engages with children and classrooms, too. And I think there are some valuable lessons we can draw from these films. Here are three examples that offer things we can usefully chew on. First the 1961 film, Splendor in the Grass, which features a young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. The pair give a powerful and sensitive portrayal of high school students, whose doom-laden love affair results in Natalie Wood’s character, Deanie, suffering a prolonged mental breakdown. A film about vulnerability as well as resilience, set in a period when the economy enters a phase of economic recession – it has resonance for our own time.

There is a key classroom scene halfway through the film, when Deanie is emotionally distraught having been rejected by Bud. The teacher begins the lesson reciting a few lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. The first thing that strikes you about it is that this is a rather bad model of how to deliver a poetry lesson: the teacher recites the Wordsworth lines in a way that displays her own expertise, sighs wearily in expectation of very limited response from the class, and then – with no attempt to mediate or frame discussion – picks on Deanie, demanding that she explain ‘what the poet meant’ by these lines. Deanie – locked into the inner world of her own pain – is forced to read the lines herself from a book and then offer a faltering explanation for Wordsworth’s assertion that we may ‘find strength in what remains behind’ after our initial apprehension of ‘splendour’ at key moments in life have faded. Watch the classroom scene in the clip available on YouTube here.

What is most interesting here is not so much the emotional drama generated by an ill-judged pedagogy, though. Rather it is the film’s modelling of a process whereby the lines – even though forced upon Deanie at a moment when she cannot process them – find their way into her inner life and do end up – paradoxically – becoming a significant emotional resource for her. This should have been the teacher’s primary aim for the class in the first place, of course. The film finishes with Deanie reciting the lines which have now fully cleaved to her memory in a voice-over monologue, where they resonate deeply with her inner life and hard-won emotional balance. Watch the final scene in the clip available on YouTube here.

Splendor in the Grass shows how memorised lines of verse may give shape and focus to the deepest currents of our lives, even without our willing this to happen consciously. By contrast, Dead Poets’ Society focuses on a school culture – and the uncontrolled sub-culture this engenders – where poetry is memorised and performed in a more highly self-conscious,  even self-dramatizing, manner.  Robin Williams plays the charismatic teacher who puts poetry and self-expression at the heart of an otherwise repressive 1950s school’s curriculum – with ultimately tragic consequences. This is an inspirational, though also flawed, film in many ways.

Dead Poets Society

The flaws in Dead Poets’ Society seem to me to stem from the film’s promoting the performative value of poetry over its connection to the complexity of inner life. The boys – the protagonists are all boys from privileged backgrounds – are intoxicated by Robin Williams’ idea that poetry offers a path towards living a more authentic life. But they imbibe this notion in the group context of a secret society where the adolescent male prerogative of display takes over. The boys use poetry to show off to each other – and occasionally to the girls they persuade to join them – indulging a group fantasy that they are non-conformist rebels. Although the film does explore some of the adolescent narcissism and underlying vulnerability involved in this, the heroic status it gives to Robin Williams’ role means that it never really examines in depth what lies beneath the performative aspects of poetry. Many of us – perhaps particularly men – need the motivation of showing off, or emulating others, at times to acquire new knowledge and expand our ways of being. But the film doesn’t quite grasp how poetry’s real power to get inside us is a longer – and less flashy – process.

Perhaps the richest film to probe the many forms in which poetry may get inside us and make connections with many of the deepest, most difficult, and even troubling aspects of our lives is The History Boys. This is an adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play, first staged at the National Theatre. The focus of the drama is on the very different teaching styles used to coach a group of boys, from non-privileged backgrounds, at a Northern English grammar school who are trying to get places at Oxbridge. As a dramatic forum, opening up debate about the efficacy and value of competing pedagogies, it continues to have subtly probing resonance.

The History Boys

One of the teachers in The History Boys, Hector, exemplifies an idiosyncratic, highly unsystematic approach to developing the boys’ understanding that places the memorisation and recitation of poetry, especially, at the heart of his method and values. The scene in which he listens to his pupil Possner’s recitation of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’ could stand as a fitting counterpoint to the bad teaching modelled in Splendor in the Grass. Apart from the sensitivity, personal engagement and depth of understanding that are embodied so brilliantly here, what is striking about this scene is the way it moves so freely between what one might call objective kinds of knowledge  (details of language and historical context) and the poem’s providing a space in which difficult, personal feelings can be expressed in safe ways. Memorizing, performing and listening become interdependent, creative activities, within which aspects of identity that are complex and difficult can be brought out and shared, even in some way validated, without being fully disclosed.

But the poem itself is not left behind in this process, nor does it become simply a vehicle for self-assertion – or even self-promotion – as is sometimes the case in Dead Poets’ Society. Instead, because it resonates with personal elements in the two characters’ emotional struggles, the poem becomes more vivid in its own right, its details registered with full attentiveness. The poem – almost literally – comes alive in conjunction with the emotional lives of those who are engaging with it. David Fuller discriminates what is at stake here in a particularly insightful form when he observes that:

Reading should reveal the expressivity the poet has found in the language and built into its organization, not apply expressivity from outside. There may be a great deal of colour present [in a poem being performed], but it should be the colours of the poem’s words interacting with the colours of the reader’s personality.

To do this fully the reader has to live with a poem. Part of that ‘living with’ is to read the poem repeatedly, working it into one’s own voice, interiorizing a sense of its feelings and ideas. (David Fuller, The Life in the Sonnets, 2011, p.87)

What this scene dramatizes so effectively is the ‘colours’ of the poem’s words interacting with, not just the speaker and listener’s personalities, but also elements of their core identities that are shown as under extreme pressure at this point in the film’s narrative. But – as reflection on a particular form of pedagogy – the film also shows the value of ‘living with’ a poem through the repeated readings necessary to internalize, remember and then perform it to a sensitive, engaged audience.

Films and TV drama generally are also a rich resource reflecting – and reflecting on – the many ways in which we still value poetry in contemporary culture.

 

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.

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Unplugged: exploring a poem through drawing

4th June 2020

In this week’s blogpost, Julie Blake thinks about beginning to learn a poem by heart – by hand writing and hand drawing.

This week we had an email from a state school teacher who said this of Poetry By Heart, the competition and our team: “Beyond the sound pedagogy of the competition and the love of poetry which it aims to foster, there is a deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful group of people.” I was lost for words. Lots of teachers say nice things to us about the competition but the word “humane” took me right back to the very beginning of my career in education when I was clear that I wanted to walk in the path of the humanists, concerned with the whole child and their process of becoming creative, critical and capable of acting to make the world a better place. Years of teaching all exam classes knocked some of the stuffing out of my idealism, but fundamentally, it’s still where I’m at. In this blogpost, I’m thinking about how our newest resources, all about exploring a poem through drawing, might create a space for moments of learning that are also deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful.

Give it a go: poem posters

We’ve been creating poem-posters since the beginning of Poetry By Heart in 2013 because as former teachers we know the joy of something new and interesting for your classroom wall. Our first ones included a few lines from one of the poems on our poetry timeline, with a related image and some of the words redacted with the idea that this might intrigue students to look up the poem and figure out the blanks. In the end we decided this was merely annoying and in the next and all subsequent series we’ve used the whole poem. We send a pack of poem-posters out each year to schools and colleges taking part in the competition, to help generate interest among your colleagues and students, and we love seeing them up in corridors, libraries and classroom walls when we visit or when we see pictures of your competitions over on Twitter.

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Our designers are fabulous and everyone on the Poetry By Heart team has a secret Poetry By Heart poem-poster favourite. But as we’ve thought about this more recently, we’ve realised that there have been gains and losses in the changes we’ve made. The posters have gradually become both more beautiful and more removed from the modest pedagogical ambition of those redactions. They are gorgeous artefacts, and we think they help to raise the profile of your competitions, but what, ultimately, can you do with them apart from attach them to a wall. So, while still sending those out to competing schools, we’ve also been experimenting with a more pedagogically-inflected style of poem-poster, hand-drawn and hand-written.

You might well have already seen our poem-poster for Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s uncanny little poem, ‘The Witch’. We’ve used it in flyers promoting the competition at various times this year and the young artist who created it, Ben Westley Clarke, has blogged about his creative process for us.

Witch BWC

Now we’ve added four more designs by Ben, for Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate’, William Blake’s ‘London’ and John Clare’s ‘I Am’.  All five poem-posters are hand-drawn in pencil (later overlaid with ink) and they present the poem in the artist’s hand-written form. They’re in the Learning Zone for you to download and use with your students as you wish.

The question remains, though: what do you do with them? Stick them on the wall, by all means. We asked Ben to work only in black and white so that if you wanted to enlarge them on a basic school photocopier, you could. If you want to get them printed bigger for your classroom, let us know via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk. Post them on your digital platform, too, by all means. But they’re really designed as inspiration for students to have a go at creating a poem-poster themselves, needing nothing more elaborate than a pencil and a piece of paper.

This “unplugged” dimension to our poem-posters is important though it has become so in ways we didn’t predict. Who knew last summer when we started thinking about our poem-posters that we would all be engulfed by the outbreak of Covid-19? With such starkly differential access for students to computers and other devices at home now, our approach looks prescient, though of course it wasn’t.

What we actually had in mind was a number of different ideas that coalesce in interesting ways:

From memory research, the idea that when you hand write something, it stays longer in the memory than something typed on a keyboard. It’s something to do with the embodied act of handwriting, muscle memory and time by contrast with the speed and anonymity of machine writing.

From students telling us time and again that one of the their first steps after choosing a poem was to write it out by hand, sometimes doing so many times over in order to lodge the poem in mind. Sometimes they wrote out a few copies and posted them around the house so they could see them as they washed up or brushed their teeth.

From poetry and memory research, the idea that the parts of the brain that respond to a poem are the same parts of the brain that respond to a friend – hang out together long enough, doing something, and the poem-friendship deepens.

The idea that every text transformation – a poem’s written form into a designed poem-poster or an animation or a song – involves the same fundamental act of commitment, interpretation and appreciation as a poem recitation, and perhaps rather more personal investment, curiosity and enjoyment than a PEE paragraph in an exam preparation essay.

And we thought about Glyn Maxwell’s wonderful book, On Poetry, in which he invites us to consider the first line of a poem as a snapshot, a precise moment captured in which a speaker suddenly breaks the silence in order to say these very particular words. He says:

“The younger arts can help us. As film helps with stanza-break, let photography help with first lines. Imagine any first line as a photographic frame. 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 into 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?” (Glyn Maxwell (2012), On Poetry. Oberon Books Ltd, London.)

Drawing a poem involves seeing a poem, exploring its meaning and values, its verbal texture and its shape. It involves thinking about how to make that tangible for someone else, in a visual form. This visual form that might be enough in its own right, an aesthetic response to an aesthetic object, or it might form the basis for explanation and discussion of a literary interpretation that is unique to the student and precious for that. And for us at Poetry By Heart, it’s a rich and meaningful way to begin to know a poem, slowly, as the basis of learning it by heart, slowly, and to create a unique, personal resource for continuing the process of learning it by heart, slowly. We’d love to feature some student poem-posters in the Learning Zone alongside Ben’s and to see them shared on Twitter in a virtual Poetry By Heart poem-poster exhibition! The first step is for students to explore the poems on the Poetry By Heart website and to find one they love and want to draw. So much lies in the choosing…

To finish, here are some more of Ben’s thoughts about illustrating poems.

Illustrating William Blake’s ‘London’

I was first introduced to this poem by my best friend, about 10 years ago, whilst he was studying for an English Literature degree and I was studying at the Slade School of Art. We lived together whilst we both worked a summer job at a Paella stall on Covent Garden Market. The poem grew and grew on me as I stayed in London – I ended up relating it, with perhaps too lucid a historical imagination, to my own contemporary experience of the sprawling City as a place of alienation, injustice and sorrow. I have been making images of London’s streets for several years and have often drawn from observation in areas like Hackney and Camden, or at events like the Notting Hill Carnival. I’m interested in the bustle of street life – people’s clothing, how things are revealed or obscured by gaps or blockages in one’s line of sight; and the strange clashes that one encounters between completely different types of people. I decided to do a street scene in this vein, using the costume of Blake’s era.

Illustrating Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate':

I was instantly attracted to Christina Rossetti’s somewhat humble eye for detail in her poem ‘A Frog’s Fate’. I wanted to draw the sequence of events from the poem – the big frog, surrounded by nature, carefree; followed by him meeting his sudden fate at the hands of the horse-drawn wagon which comes careering down a country lane. The ‘Waggoner’ isn’t described in detail – I found his anonymity slightly sinister – I thought of him as a hooded ‘death’ figure, like a character from an Edward Burra watercolour. For some reason, the serious-humour aspect of the poem, as well as its urge to describe nature, also made me think of Japanese woodblock printing and artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kyosai. I wanted to draw in a crisp, clear way – apt to describe nature in detail, but also flexible enough to be spontaneous and inventive.

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart. As Dr Julie Blake she is also a researcher in children’s literature and a Digital Humanities Methods Fellow at Cambridge University. Her doctoral thesis asked and answered the question: What did the national curriculum do for poetry?

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Poem of the Week

21st May 2020

In this blogpost, Julie Blake explains what Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is up to. Who is it for? What do you do with it? Where can you find it? When does it come out? Why are we doing it? How can you take it further?

Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is free and available in the Learning Zone on our website at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk. Or you can sign up to get it in your inbox by email.

 

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, a long-ago former student to be precise, tweeted a plea to organisations to stop emailing him all their rather intense announcements of how they could help during the Covid-19 crisis. However well-meant, he had quite enough in his inbox to deal with to keep his job and his team going remotely, to home-school his children, to support his wider family and to simply get through a supermarket shop safely. I saw this tweet just as we were about to launch the new Poetry By Heart Poem of the Week feature. I looked at the email campaign lined up on my screen, ready to blast out our offer of a little support for poetry learning during Covid-19, and I deleted it. So if you’re thinking, “I didn’t know you were doing a Poem of the Week”, that’s why. We launched it quietly.

Even so, just by mentioning it a couple of times on Twitter and in our regular newsletter, we’re already heading for triple figures a couple of weeks on and, with the lockdown beginning to ease a little, it’s time to introduce it properly.

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Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is a response to the Covid-19 crisis but it’s also part of the plan we had anyway to create more specific resources for exploring poetry out loud and by heart. The new Covid-19 challenge we had was to adapt what we had in mind to the new conditions where some teachers and students would be in school but most would be teaching and learning at home. We wanted to create a simple poem resource that could be enjoyed and shared by children and their families at home, and used as a starting point for a poetry lesson or activity in school.  It’s designed to be low-key and low-stress, easy to start but rich with possibilities for more extended exploration. There’s a link to one of the poems on our website and a short activity. It’s all about enjoying a poem, exploring its sound and sharing it aloud.

So far, we’ve featured Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Eagle’ and contemporary poet Joseph Coelho’s ‘Eastbourne’. This gives a little taste of the mixture of classic and contemporary poets we’ll be featuring. The poems will either have been written specifically for children, or written with children in mind (to follow the poet Rachel Rooney’s explanation of her writing), or they have often been selected for children.  We want families or classes with children of different ages to be able to enjoy them together, so the poems will tend to be on the shorter side and they won’t put up too many obstacles to fairly immediate enjoyment. Though poetry excels at “The weariness, the fever, and the fret” of humankind’s existence, as John Keats encapsulated it, we’ll be sharing poems that are positive, funny, joyful, uplifting or sustaining in some way, sometimes through the kinds of closer observation of the natural world that many of us have taken heart from in this quieter phase of the world’s turning.

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When you click on the poem link in the Poem of the Week feature, you’ll travel to the Poetry By Heart Mix-It-Up collection of poems. This is a “walled garden” of poems we’ve chosen for younger children. It’s designed to offer a playful interface for children to discover poems. Roll over a poem ‘tile’ and the poem title appears, click on it and there’s an intriguing line from the poem, scroll down and the poem is there in a dyslexic-friendly font. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find a selection of random other poem-tiles to lead you on to new adventures in poetry. Click on the ‘Mix It Up’ button at the top of the wall of tiles and you’ll see why we called it that – hours of family entertainment right there!

The activity that comes with the poem is all about the sound of the poem. We want children to experience the poem and to feel for themselves poetry’s fundamental basis in voice and sound, in patterns of musicality, and in breath and the human heartbeat. This is the vitamin-enriched foundation needed for deep learning about language and form, when children are formally introduced to it in their schooling, and about all the many ways in which poets catch fleeting precious moments in a web of words. In Poem of the Week you’ll find prompts to have a go at saying the poem aloud – ideas about how to pace it, or where the emphasis fall, or shifts in tone that might need to be voiced. The idea is not to provide a comprehensive guide to reciting any individual poem, but to encourage experience and experiment over a number of weeks and many poems. The default activity is always this: read the poem, share it aloud, have a go at the activity.

But children and families, students and teachers, could go further with it, of course. A simple say-aloud of the poem might be the starting point for learning the poem by heart and preparing a performance of it in the here-and-now of home or school, for neighbours over the socially-distanced garden fence or for distant family over video chat. Sharing and talking about the poem might be the starting point of new poems created by children and adults. Take Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’. Most of us don’t get too many opportunities to watch the movement of an eagle, but what about really watching that blackbird pecking up the flowerbed, or that seagull swooping for chips? Which words could capture that precise moment of movement? Or try Coelho’s ‘Eastbourne’ as a starting point – what other impossible-to-answer questions do people ask you?

There are lots of other creative ways of exploring a poem too. Have a look at ‘The Witch’ poem poster created by artist Ben Westley Clarke. Could you have a go at something like this? All you need is a drawing implement and a drawing surface. I would say “pencil and paper” but I’ve seen some amazing chalk-art on pavements during the lockdown! Or create a video of your poem of the week – recited solo or in a pair or a whole group taking parts chorally, or turned into a mini-movie or an animation. We’d love to see what you can do!

Poem of the Week is free and available to anyone who wants it. It goes out by email on Sunday afternoons all ready for the week ahead – sign up to get it in your inbox. On Mondays, we add the latest feature to the Learning Zone of our website so you can browse the whole collection as it builds, whenever you want to and without inbox-overload. And if that whets your appetite for more poetry, you could also check out these other features that share a poem every day or every week.

Poem of the Day emails

For many years I‘ve subscribed to the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day email. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and A Level students, often perfectly chiming with the day’s global events or the seasons, sometimes bringing you a loved classic, sometimes a new treasure. I share poems I especially enjoy with family and friends on my Facebook page. But, to be honest, most days it sweeps past me in the avalanche that is my inbox. I wish I could swim faster in the joyful torrent of words but I don’t. But I don’t give up on it either. The strange new conditions of our times are helping me recalibrate my guilt: letting poetry wash over and around me is fine. I’ll open the emails as and when I have – or more than usually need – the mental breathing space. You can also sign up for a poem of the day email with The Academy of American Poets.

Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week articles in The Guardian

Poem of the day emails are what they say they are, but if you want a more substantial guide to poems you haven’t read before, you can’t do better than the poet Carol Rumens and her wonderful Poem of the Week series in The Guardian. Each week, the feature includes a poem and a commentary all about it. The selection of poems is fantastic – broad and inclusive, comfortable and surprising – and the commentary is pitched perfectly to the curious everyday reader. It’s fantastic radar-widening for teachers (and A Level students) and a model of clear, intelligent, accessible writing about poems. Can you tell I like it yet?…

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart. As Dr Julie Blake she is also a researcher in children’s literature and a Digital Humanities Methods Fellow at Cambridge University. Her doctoral thesis asked and answered the question: What did the national curriculum do for poetry?

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The value of the memorised poem

9th December 2019

Memorised poemBetween 2013 and 2016, Debbie Pullinger and David Whitley conducted a research project – funded by the Leverhulme foundation – into how the value of the memorised poem was experienced and perceived. They conducted an online survey in which nearly 500 people participated, with a good spread of age groups from 18 to over 80. Participants were asked about when they learned poems and for what purposes, as well as being invited to reflect in more depth about a particular poem that had stayed in their memory and held special value for them. This research provides a very interesting backdrop – and to some extent an evidence base or even rationale – for Poetry By Heart. Below David Whitley offers some extracts from the Project’s main findings, together with reflections on issues raised that may be particularly relevant for Poetry By Heart.

In the final report we divided the central findings into three main categories or sets of issues:

  • what kinds of poems were held in people’s memories and had become particularly important to them;
  • how memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences;
  • and how memorisation affected participants’ understanding and experience of the poem.

What kinds of poems were held in people’s memories and had become particularly important to them?

It became clear that – in aggregate – the poems participants singled out as being particularly important for them could be seen as embodying a kind of recitation canon. This canon, moreover, existed in participants’ hearts and minds independently of any institutional context, even if a proportion of the poems had originally been learned in school. (Actually this proportion was rather less than we had expected, under half the total). So what seemed to characterise this informal canon? Here we quote selectively from the report of project’s findings:

‘The memorised poems selected by respondents may be seen as exemplifying an informal tradition. Insofar as this ‘tradition’ represents an informal alternative to more conventional canons, it has implications for how we might think about both the ‘uses’ of poetry, and the cultural processes of selection more widely… The single most striking feature of this informal memorised canon is that it is more conservative than the poetry syllabuses currently found in schools and higher education, being highly centred on male, white, British and Irish writers, most of whom have been dead for at least fifty years. Compared with those syllabuses, however, the memorised canon continues to value popular verse of the past which is no longer regarded academically, as well as giving a significant place to poetry with a strong appeal to the ear and to humorous works. Moreover, although largely conservative in cultural terms, elements of ethnic and regional diversity are clearly present. Given that the poetic tradition is often considered a cultural asset which underpins the expressive richness of the English language, we feel there is therefore scope for the alternative tradition of poems, held in the heartlands of memory, to be seen as a positive aspect of national identity, especially if its conservative qualities are reinvigorated and extended by practices incorporating greater diversity.’

A few reflections in relation to Poetry By Heart –

The significant poems selected by participants were conservative not only in terms of authorship (a huge preponderance of white, dead, males) but also in terms of poetic forms. Virtually none of the poems selected were in free verse or what tends to be categorised now as ‘open forms’, without a regular rhyme scheme or metrical structure. Clearly rhyme and metre help poems stick in the memory, but they also signal ‘traditional’. Over 100 years after the first great modernist experiments in free verse started, the freedoms associated with open forms are hardly ground-breaking or iconoclastic any more, but – with enormous variation – they are the forms that most living poets writing in English choose to work in. The informal recitation canon appears to be quite determinedly old fashioned, therefore, and Poetry By Heart has consciously set out to offer choices for memorisation that are both more inclusive in terms of the voice, ethnicity and origins of the poets, and wider ranging in terms of forms. Still, the Poetry By Heart anthologies try to recognise the continued appeal of more traditional metres and rhyme schemes for recitation as well as including a larger proportion of lighter, more humorous and popular poems than tend to be used in classrooms.

How memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences

For nearly all of our respondents, knowing some poetry by heart is regarded as an enriching, life-enhancing experience. The survey ranking gave an indication of the effects most likely to be experienced. Appreciation of the poem itself was the most prevalent, closely followed by the role of the poem as an emotional resource. However, the other suggested benefits were fairly evenly represented, as shown here (percentages rounded to nearest decimal place).

  • Helps me appreciate the poem more – 72%
  • Gives me a source of comfort in tough times – 63%
  • Helps me understand the poem better – 56%
  • Is good for being able to play with language – 54%
  • Helps me to make sense of life – 44%
  • Is good for making connections between things – 42%
  • Gives me confidence that I am able to remember things generally – 40%
  • Helps with being able to express ideas – 39%
  • Makes no difference- 3%

Fleshed out by findings from the qualitative textual analysis, the picture of a memorised poem is, typically, of a personal possession with connections to people who have been loved, or to significant life experiences. These connections are continually active in the experience of the memorised poem and may present themselves in different forms over time. Memorised poems tend to be transmitted in vivo, and are perceived as being alive in a different way from poetry that is accessed only in its printed form. However, this condition of being embedded within life experience does not mean that the poem itself is necessarily perceived impressionistically or in a purely subjective mode. On the contrary, the respondents who experienced the poem in this way also tended to have a very strong sense of its formal and semantic qualities. What differentiates it from the poem as an object of literary study (where the textual, abstract or conceptual qualities are foregrounded) is that the memorised poem tends to retain its connection to a web of personal, embodied associations. Indeed, for these events and experiences, the poem may itself act as a powerful mnemonic, tagging them with significance and transfixing them within the inner life, over time. This in turn undoubtedly contributes to the memorised poem’s vital role as an emotional resource, but it is probably the combination of this mnemonic property with an internalised sense of the poem’s formal structure that enables it to work so effectively, as often reported, as a container for strong emotion

How memorisation affected participants’ understanding and experience of the poem.

The phrases ‘by rote’ and ‘by heart’ occur frequently in the open-ended survey responses. Our analysis suggests that these two colloquial expressions do point towards a real difference in the practices and processes of learning, which may in turn tend to produce different experiences of the memorised poem itself. The way individuals relate to a memorised poem is undoubtedly the product of a complex of factors that include personal psychology, family culture, and school experience. Nevertheless, the poem learned ‘by rote’ – where the goal tends be the memorisation itself rather than engagement with the poem – is less likely to be retained over a prolonged period, or may not be as fully appreciated or understood. Although a poem learned ‘by rote’ may take root and come to be experienced in a fuller way, our evidence indicates that a productive, fruitful relationship with a poem is more likely to result from learning that might be described as ‘by heart’. In contrast to more functionalist, mechanical forms of ‘rote’ learning, deep or organic learning may be characterised by a focus on the poem’s inherent qualities, including its sensory attributes, and by an attitude of curiosity and playfulness. Many respondents experiencing poems in this way describe them in terms that cast the poem as a living entity – a finding which correlates with recent neurological understandings of the distinctive way in which the brain perceives and processes art forms more generally (McGilchrist, 2008).

Evidence from our interviews also indicates that memorised poems tend to exist in relationship with other forms, within a wide mental and textual landscape that may include:

  • wholly and imperfectly recalled poems, odd lines and fragments
  • poetry in published volumes and anthologies
  • handwritten personal notebook and quotations, exchanged with others orally and in writing.

Page and memory are experienced as mutually supportive counterparts within a multimodal nexus. Thus, memorised poetry may be understood not as a single or discrete category, but as one form of engagement within an ecology of interdependent forms and exchanges.

 

In summary, we believe these insights constitute an important perspective for current educational culture, where poetry memorisation is sometimes perceived as purely functional (a means to an end), as a superficial form of engagement, or even as a counter-productive practice. Our findings indicate the potential benefits of integrated memorisation practices that work in synergy with other forms of engagement, performance, appreciation, and meaning making. Memorised poems, in this context, may constitute an immensely valuable resource for life.

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Emily’s Dream – lifting poetry off the page

15th November 2019

FWW blog Varty thin

We’re interested in all kinds of ways of lifting poetry off the page and into the breath, life and pulse of shared experiences of speaking and listening to poems. In this week’s blogpost, Professor Anne Varty talks about lifting poems of the First World War by women off the page with pupil performers at Cheney School in Oxford.  There is a longer article with photographs from the performance of this piece, the list of poems included in the performance and the performance script in the Autumn 2019 edition of NATE’s Teaching English if you want to give it a go yourself. You might also want to think about the idea of it as a way of working with a group of poems from an anthology – maybe even one of the Poetry By Heart timeline anthologies or the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase! Something for your after school poetry club?

On 14 December 2018 the poetry of Scars Upon My Heart came to life in Cheney School, Oxford when a group of Year 8 students performed ‘Emily’s Dream’, a monologue which explores the poetry of this WW1 anthology.

‘Emily’s Dream’ took shape in the context of twin centenaries: the end of WW1 and the first General Election in which women could vote. At Cheney School it was workshopped and performed as part of their ‘Suffrage Day’ celebrations. It is published in the current issue of NATE Teaching English (Autumn 2019, Issue 21).

One of the poets in Scars Upon My Heart observes ‘nobody asked what the women thought’. This astonishing anthology tells us in detail – angry, grieving, energetic detail – exactly what women did think during World War 1. Taken together, the poems offer a powerful choric expression of what women endured during WW1, and what they contributed to it. We can hear their voices, in all their diversity, echoing across the century since the first Armistice Day, remembering too that poetry was one important way in which, in the era before suffrage, women could make their voices heard in public. So every one of these poems is a political act by which women asserted their right to speak, and be heard.

‘Emily’s Dream’ is spoken by the ghost of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died in 1913 after being struck by the King’s horse at Epsom. I imagined her as a ghost inhabiting the poems of Scars Upon My Heart, drawing out the way the poetry took her ambitions forward, brought women to public notice, made a case for their right to full citizenship.

So Emily got out her scissors and in a spirit of feverish irreverence (allowed even if you’re not a ghost), started snipping and stitching and sampling her way through the anthology. Inevitably, the first poem she turned to was by her fellow suffragette Cicely Hamilton, whose anthem ‘March of the Women’ she had sung tramping around the exercise yard of Holloway Prison with the other suffragist inmates. Hamilton’s Scars poem, ‘Non-Combatant’, is seething with angry irony about women’s exclusion from combat. She pictures herself as a useless ‘mouth’ which has to be fed; but through the poem her mouth acquires a voice and she can at least broadcast her objection to enforced idleness. Her deeds are words.

Noticeable, once all the different voices are brought together into a single monologue, is the way in which each line of poetry carries its own distinct rhythm. Emily has to modulate her speech to accommodate these different oral textures, tones and speeds. Perhaps the lines that stand out most are those from Jessie Pope’s ‘War Girls’. But this is a poem which draws attention to its own rhythm in a peculiar way: the pacey forward push of the iambics, and the gleeful rhymes, tell a story that runs counter to the ostensible message of the poem. The words might mean that ‘girls’ will give up their work when the ‘khaki soldier boys come marching back’, but the oral qualities of the poem rob this of all conviction. As a complete contrast with Jessie Pope’s dynamism, but sitting cheek by jowl with it in Emily’s monologue, is the meditative, inward pace of the rhetorical question, ‘who shall deliver us from the memory of these dead?’. This is taken from ‘A Memory’ by the pioneering pacifist poet Margaret Sackville. The rhythm of each poem is as different as the war politics of each poet, and the contrast really shows when they are side by side. Even so, what unites them is more powerful than what separates them: the poems move women into the public sphere and show that their feelings, views and work have value there.

If Emily wanted to get her scissors out again, there are places where the monologue could be extended. For example, the topic of what work women did during the war could be explored from the poems in the anthology, or some further details about grieving and memorialisation could readily be dovetailed into the existing piece. And Emily could listen rather than speak during those sections, if others wanted to speak up. So there’s plenty of exploring and experimenting still to be done.

Just as Scars Upon My Heart creates and represents a community of women, so ‘Emily’s Dream’ was devised to include the whole community, including the audience, in its performance. The monologue can be delivered without any action at all, allowing the drama to be carried entirely in the words; and just as the wonderful performers at Cheney School thought of sharing the role of Emily, so too lines of her monologue could also be distributed amongst the class or company. The main thing is to enjoy playing with the poetry, to climb inside it as Emily’s ghost did, and listen to what these women’s voices from the past are telling us.

Professor Anne Varty is Co- Director of TeacherHub>English, English Department, Royal Holloway University of London. 

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maggie and milly and molly and may – building courage and confidence

7th November 2019

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There are many different ways of getting started with Poetry By Heart but teachers’ top tip is always to give pupils some encounter with poetry recitation before asking them to give it a go. After all, if you’ve never seen or heard anyone reciting a poem before, how would you even know what “it” is?

In this blog I’ll be laying out a tried and tested activity for a whole class encounter to build courage and confidence in a safe and supportive, fun and collective way. You need a single lesson. We’ve used this activity with a feisty class of year 10s, a little group of primary school children in a hospital education unit, and with 46 Dutch teachers! Every time, the energy was fantastic, we had fun and by the end the very different participants were well on the way to having a poem by heart!

Here goes…

The sounds, patterns and rhythms of names

I start by warming up voices, experimenting with the sounds, patterns and rhythms of words, activating the memory cells and breaking the ice about performance. This is done with a little fun activity around names.

I tell the class the members of my team are Julie, Tim, Lily, Tom and Mike. I make it easier to remember this list by using patterns of sound and rhythm to make it enjoyable to the ear and pleasing to say, like this: “Tim, Tom, Mike/Julie and Lily”, and as I say this aloud I exaggerate the short sharp bursts of Tim, Tom, Mike, the long oo of Julie and the ly-ly of Julie and Lily. The class gets the idea and I ask them, in groups of 4 or 5, to come up with their own line, then they rehearse it, ready to perform.

I start. I say “My team is Tim, Tom, Mike,/Julie and Lily”. The next group has to say “That was Tim, Tom, Mike,/Julie and Lily and we are………” and they fill the blank with their line. The next group has to start with the previous group’s line and then give their own. And so on. We’re five minutes in and already everyone has remembered a bit of wordplay and they have recited it from memory. Not bad! Applause!

‘maggie and milly and molly and may’

I’ve loved e.e. cummings’s poem ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ since I first encountered it in an English lesson aged about 12 or 13. This activity works well with this poem because it’s short, it’s in couplets with one key image each, and though its rhythm is markedly varied in places there is a sing-song quality to parts of it too. But feel free to adapt this for any poem you like!

I get the poem up on the screen. It’s here on the 11+ anthology timeline. Pupils could have a paper copy of it too.

Joining in

I tell pupils I’m going to read it aloud 3 times and I invite them to join in when they’re ready. I start and I keep going, whatever my hesitations or stumbles, moving along briskly and adding a few actions to start ‘fixing’ the images. At the relevant moments, I hold an imaginary shell to my ear; I wave my five fingers languidly; I do a bit of walking sideways (though I don’t blow bubbles); and I hold a stone that grows from small to large. The pupils I’ve done this with have always joined in, and surprisingly quickly!

What do you remember?

After the third time I stop, take the poem off the big screen and ask pupils to turn over their paper. I ask them what they remember. A word? A phrase or an image? A line or a couplet? I’ve always been surprised by how much, as a class, they can recall after only a few minutes. Celebrate that!

Call and response

Then I challenge them to do it without the poem. Oh how they laugh – and then cry!  Of course I’m joking – that’s a big step, so we break it down. I read line 1 and they repeat it; I read line 2 and they repeat it; then we see if we can do that couplet together. We work through all 6 couplets like this and then celebrate – we did it without the poem text! (Or at least they did – teacher’s prerogative is allowed to prevail in the interests of motivational success!)

Visualising the poem

Then we go a step further. I show them the structure of the poem using a slide deck of 6 pictures. First there is a picture of a beach, and this goes with the list of 4 girls’ names. Then it’s maggie’s solo stanza and there’s a picture of a shell. Then it’s milly and the starfish, molly and the ‘horrible thing’ (a crab), may and the smooth round stone, and finally it’s finding ourselves in the sea. Then we give the poem a go, me reading/reciting and them using the picture prompts to join in as much as they can. Together we do it!

Learning our lines

Then we’re ready for the final step – performance. Again, we break it down – I allocate lines to be learned by small groups. 6 groups might each learn a couplet each, or 5 groups a couplet each plus everyone learning the last one, or 4 groups learning a couplet each and everyone learning the first and last couplets. They learn their lines and if I have time I get them to rehearse a little so they synch their timing, rhythm and emphasis. Then we’re ready to go.

Class performance

If I’m racing towards the end of the lesson I simply count them in and off we go, each group reciting their part in turn; if I have a little more time we might do that and then run through the whole poem all together, or vice versa. Whatever, we finish with a big round of applause and lots of cheery celebration of their achievement.

Next steps in Poetry By Heart

Maybe from this starting point some of your pupils will go off and master this poem ready to take part in a school competition; maybe you’ll work it up some more with the whole class to enter the choral recitation competition; or maybe learning this much will help to inspire some of them to choose a different poem. Whatever happens, they will have had an experience of learning a poem by heart and performing it. And it will have been fun!

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Finding a track in the verbal landscape

2nd October 2019

Track in a verbal landscape_edited2With the return of Poetry By Heart, bigger then ever before, we’re back on the blog to continue our discussion about poetry in all its myriad aspects. We’ll be talking about poetry, teaching and what’s going on in the world of poetry, but one of our main aims is to share thoughts and ideas for anyone interested in memorising and reciting poems.

We have some NEW blog team members for 2019-20. We’ll introduce them one at a time over the next few weeks. First up is David Whitley, Fellow of Homerton College Cambridge, formerly of the Faculty of Education, an expert on poetry and memory and a Poetry By Heart judge. To kick us off, here he is with a few questions and topics he’ll be exploring on the blog in coming months.

Starting with the whole terrain, what happens when you memorise and perform a poem? How does your relationship with the poem change during the process of learning it and trying out different ways of speaking it? Do you come to understand the poem in a different way to what would have happened if you’d just read, studied or analysed it? Is the poem in some sense ‘alive’ when taken into your self in this way? Does it ever seem to speak to you – or indeed speak you – rather than you speaking it? Does it forge new connections to other experiences you have had and get you to see these from a slightly different perspective? And when it comes to performing the poem for an audience of other people, what are we striving for in that act of giving voice to the words on a page from memory? What do we mean by a ‘good’ performance? And how may this differ from performing lines from a play, for instance?

The list could go on, of course, and we’ll be pursuing aspects of these questions in more depth in subsequent blogs. Another area that especially interests us is how the ‘voice’ of the poem – with all its distinctive cultural and historical resonances, and affiliations – merges with the voice of the speaker. Poems – like stories – have the ability to connect people across time and space, of course. But they also tend to retain something inherent to the culture, time, place and writer who composed them. When we choose a poem to memorise we are drawn towards something in it. It might be the sound quality rather than the sense, or something that seems to appeal in a quite arbitrary way, initially. But as we learn the poem, our relationship inevitably deepens as we take the specific textures of its language and form inside ourselves.

When we try to speak it from memory then, our individual voice has found a track of feeling and expression in the verbal landscape of the person who wrote the poem. In a sense, our individual voice is forging a particular kind of connection to a collective voice, whose rhythms and bearings the poem must draw on if it is to be successful. This is a difficult – sometimes subtle but potentially compelling territory to explore, then. In memorising a poem, how is an individual’s voice oriented towards the collective voice that the poem embodies?

You can read more about David’s research on poetry and memory here.

We welcome questions that you find intriguing and hope to provoke a range of responses and exchanges along the way. Join the conversation over on Twitter @poetrybyheart or email us a question via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.

 

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Learning lines – an actor’s perspective

22nd February 2018


This blogpost is written by Megan Rogers, General Manager at Actors of Dionysus

How do actors learn all those lines?

I imagine that this question is asked by almost all theatre-goers at one time or another. And that question might also spring to mind when watching a young person performing without the safety net of a book or autocue when reciting an extract from ‘Paradise Lost’ within the national Poetry By Heart competition. Recently I saw a fantastic production of King Lear at the National Theatre and I remember feeling absolutely in awe of Simon Russell Beale who not only gave a faultless performance in the central role, remembering massive chunks of text but delivered the performance so clearly that I understood the plot, having not really known the story.

The challenge of learning drama and poetry texts has struck me lately as our theatre company Actors of Dionysus, has just finished touring with a contemporary version of Antigone which is re-imagined in a futuristic, dystopian landscape. An initial two week research and development period allowed Artistic Director Tamsin Shasha and Writer Christopher Adams to really get to grips with the meaning of the text, and to explore new ways of presenting it. Along the way all our actors inevitably grappled with the task of learning, understanding and memorising lines and I wanted to share some thoughts about this process which may be of help to teachers and students working with the Poetry By Heart competition.

I believe that to learn something wholeheartedly you need to understand the meaning of it, and in the case of classical text this is paramount – for the Actor and the audience. During rehearsals for Antigone, Tamsin Shasha and Deirdre Daly, our Associate Director, worked closely with the cast on their understanding of the original text, splitting it in to manageable chunks first, before discussing themes, plot and character motives together, and then putting it on its feet, adapting and editing Chris’s text as the show developed. I asked Tamsin about line learning and the rehearsal process:

Yes it’s much easier to learn something when you fully understand it – it just sinks in much easier. When we rehearse our annual fund-raiser we rehearse and perform an ancient Greek drama within a week, putting considerable pressure on the actors to learn their lines in advance of the process. This is a necessity (due to a very short rehearsal process) and it makes for a baptism of fire performance – it’s worked for us for the last 5 years but there is only one crack of the whip so you have to get it right the first time! An adrenaline rush not for the faint hearted, but it proves it can be done.

I would argue that it is possible to learn something without fully understanding it, especially if you are learning parrot fashion and under duress – obviously this isn’t advisable, but sometimes needs must if you have a short rehearsal period and then you can add layers of meaning and interpretation thereafter. The memorising comes first. The nuance and the subtlety follows after, depending on the performer, their interpretation and what the director wants to see.

It is an interesting discussion about which method is best: learning by rote, the old school way of learning by repetition, or learning by heart, taking the text to heart and inhabiting it in pursuit of memorising it. Poetry By Heart challengers are encouraged to learn their chosen poem by heart and in this way they face many of the challenges that are faced by Actors within the rehearsal process, where they need to understand the text in order to inhabit their character and tell the story of the play through the character’s actions and intentions. Actors need to learn by heart in order to inhabit a character truthfully, in the same way that Poetry By Heart challengers inhabit their poem to memorise it. The point about understanding a drama text, taking it to heart and inhabiting it applies in a very similar way to Poetry By Heart participants who are choosing, engaging with and understanding a poem in pursuit of memorising it.

I asked Holly Georgia, who plays Antigone in our show, how she learns her lines:

The most obvious, natural and long lasting way of learning lines for me is to use them to build the actions and intentions for my character. It allows the writing to be fully influential to the character, giving a reason to say those exact words (why wouldn’t I say it any other way?), and I always hope to find things hidden in the text that the writer has put there for me to pull out and use to make my interpretation unique.

Once I’ve worked with the director and actors on this through the rehearsal process it’s so easy to understand through-lines and super objectives. I get to a point where the lines have been broken down to the extent that they flow so naturally, following the narrative and the character arc. At this point there almost isn’t any ‘line learning’ to be done at all!

I tend to spend a bit of time just repeating the words to myself to get the rhythm of the lines in my head- especially with classic texts or with dialects that aren’t familiar to me. Sometimes I’ll record sections or monologues onto my iPhone and play them back to myself when I’m on the tube.

I asked Holly if Actors find it useful to learn their lines before they begin acting, or do they prefer to block scenes first? Because our version of Antigone is a physical show, we began rehearsals in this way.

Some directors want you off-book for the audition let alone the first rehearsal. Others want nothing of the sort, in order to allow you to all work together to find the direction of the characters and the play. Although sometimes it all goes out the window and there is no structure or rules whatsoever, that’s what keeps it exciting!

Tamsin added:

Obviously when you have a 2-4 week rehearsal period or longer you have a lot more time to nuance, adapt the lines, play and discover. It’s more fun in a way because you have the freedom to play and experiment. I usually find though that however long you have in rehearsal you normally run out of time because that’s the nature of the creative process and there’s no such thing as a finished piece of art.

There are so many different approaches to learning lines, and each Actor values them differently; for some it is a case of repetition, repetition, repetition, whilst for others it comes from an understanding of the text and the scene, and a connection with other Actors in the space – For most, it is all of these things, mixed together. We live in an age where there isn’t just one sole method of learning and this can only be a brilliant thing for an Actor, or a Poetry By Heart reciter.

Actors of Dionysus are a registered charity and limited company with almost 25 years of experience producing high quality adaptations of ancient Greek drama and new writing inspired by myth. We recognise how important it is to keep the Classics alive and we are passionate about making contemporary performance which celebrates Greek literature and its relevance today. Our work is education-led, and our fully qualified arts practitioners run a varied programme of practical and interactive Classical and Greek drama workshops for schools, colleges and universities throughout the year. For more information about our education programme click here.

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Where the magic happens.

12th April 2017

Alison Powell talks to actor, director and magician, Peter Clifford, about Shakespeare, magic and memory

 

‘You like stuff to do with Shakespeare and memory,’ a friend of mine said, recently. ‘You should see this magician, Peter Clifford. He’s memorized the entire works of Shakespeare.’

‘The entire works?’

‘Yep.’

‘37 plays? 154 sonnets? 5 long narrative poems? Word for word?’

‘Yes, seriously. He gets audience members to pick random pages from The Complete Works and he can recite lines from any of them. He’s amazing.’

We all know that a magician never reveals his secrets, but as Poetry By Heart launched its special Shakespeare Sonnet Competition this year, inviting students and staff to memorise individual sonnets, it seemed only right to ask advice from a man who appears to have memorized them all. So in the interests of research, I went along to one of Peter Clifford’s magic shows.

Early in the evening, Peter performed a memory feat in which he listed the titles of Shakespeare’s plays and narrative poems in chronological order, starting with Henry VI (Parts 2, 3 and 1) and ending with Two Noble Kinsmen. Impressive, I thought, but not quite The Complete Works. Using the method of loci (a memory strategy devised in Ancient Greece where images are mentally stored in an imagined building – see the NAWE article ‘The Old Man in the Attic’), plus a bit of focus and practise, I reckoned I could manage that myself.

But then things got a little more complicated. Peter invited an audience member to the stage and handed her a battered copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

‘Pick a page between 15 and 700,’ he said, explaining that this eliminated the introductory notes and index pages. ‘Tell me the page number and I’ll tell you the first word on that page.’

This was the spectacle my friend had raved about. Page numbers were turned to at random. Without fail, Peter recalled the first word on each and every one. Now this was impressive. And definitely not something I was about to try at home.

Then he took things even further. Peter asked the page-picker to choose the first or second column on any given page and decide if they wanted the first or last word.

‘Page 240, first column, first word.’

‘Married.’

‘Page 471, second column, last word.’

‘Mouse.’

‘Page 654, first column, last word.’

‘Weapon.’

After several increasingly rapid-fire demonstrations of this memory stunt, the entire audience was at the jaw-dropped-open-in-amazement point.

But still, there was more.

It turned out that, not only could Peter recall individual words from any page and column, but, as he went on to demonstrate in a final flourish of memorizing brilliance, he could also recite complete lines from every page. It appeared that my friend was right. Here was a man who had actually memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Later I met Peter at a café and was immediately struck by his genuine enthusiasm and passion for all things connected with memory, performance and, in particular, Shakespeare. As well as being a magician, he is also a highly respected actor, director and writer, and has performed in numerous productions with the BBC, the Sheffield Crucible Theatre and the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory Company, amongst others.

When I asked whether he had in fact memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare he smiled and explained that ‘this effect involves five different memory systems’, including a pegging system – using numbers to mentally hook images; a linking system – making connections between a series of images; and the method of loci, or memory palace. He also uses a mnemonic system in which he changes numbers into images and links these to things he wants to remember. ‘This is a very old system for memorizing that has been used in different ways. We are visual creatures. We remember images better than words.’

So the answer is, yes and no.

But, interestingly, these mnemonic tools that Peter has so thoroughly mastered are not strategies he uses when actually performing Shakespeare.

‘When I learn pieces as an actor, and poems in fact, I’ll always go for what’s beneath the words. What are the images? What are the emotions? What am I trying to communicate? If you can work that out, that gives you a core feeling and you’re much more likely to remember that than just random shapes – words. Don’t try to remember just the words.’

He says that when it comes to learning a poem by heart, understanding the meaning of the work is vital. ‘It’s an intellectual process of spending time with the poem and understanding it. I’ll look at the verse structure, the rhythm, assonance, alliteration – all those things that the poet will have used.’ He also says it’s important to ‘discover what your own personal, individual emotional connection to the poem is. That’s the story you tell.’

Almost simultaneous to this understanding comes a process of making a physical connection with the words. He suggests whispering the lines ’so you get the sounds of the consonants. Then take the vowels out for a while.’ Next he might ‘take the consonants out and just speak the vowels, to get the emotional sound – the emotion seems to come through the vowels more than the consonants.’

The way to learn a poem by heart Peter suggests, is not through memory palaces or any of the strategies that he might use in his magic shows, but through ‘practice, practice, practice. Do it over and over again. Once you know what you’re trying to communicate, the words will be there and you won’t have to think about them.’

He argues that the memorizing process happens naturally when you spend focused time with a poem. ‘If you put in the time to work on the poem first, to find out what’s happening, then you find that you’re already learning it.’ He reaches a moment ‘when you’re not thinking about the words on the page. You’re embodying the words as though you’re talking to someone. You have this emotion you want to share and you use the poem to communicate that.’

Ultimately, though, he says there is no short cut to learning a poem by heart. ‘The real key is ‘workman-like graft! Learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines.’

It seems the real trick to poetry and recitation is less to do with mnemonics and more to do with getting to know the words intimately, discovering the emotional truth beneath the lines and finding a way to deliver them that is truly your own.

And, as we know from the best Poetry By Heart performances, that’s where the real magic happens.

 

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Learning a sonnet? It’s (like) a piece of cake

7th March 2017

Alison Powell explains the similarities between cake eating and sonnet memorization to students.

You’ve probably heard your teachers going on about how wonderful the bard is. ‘William Shakespeare was a genius,’ they might say. ‘Look. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Isn’t he amazing?’

And you might be thinking, ‘Big deal. Ed Sheeran has written at least 38 songs we know about, plus a heap he’s written for other people and he probably has a few more up his sleeve. What’s all the fuss?’

The trouble with this type of thinking is that it assumes a deep knowledge of something without proper experience of it. It’s a bit like saying you know what this cake tastes like, just by looking at the picture:

20170307_BLOG_Cake

Cake: Looks chocolate-y and good, but you can’t know how delicious it really is without taking a bite.

Perhaps you’re now thinking, ‘Yes, but I have read Shakespeare, actually. We did Romeo and Juliet/Macbeth/Othello in school last term.’

That’s great. But although reading a play in the classroom does give you a bit more of a flavour, it can be more like looking at a recipe and saying you’ve eaten the cake.

Amazing Chocolate Cake

  • 4 eggs
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175 g butter …

Again, you’re getting an idea of the cake, but you’re not getting the full experience of tasting it. You can think of a play as a recipe for actors. Until it’s brought to life on stage, it’s a bit flavourless and two-dimensional. You’ve come closer to understanding Shakespeare, but still haven’t had a proper bite.

There is, of course, only way to truly know how lovely the cake actually is. I can talk to you about it for hours. I can describe the fluffy light sponge that melts on your tongue and the gorgeously not-too-sweet cream that oozes from its centre. Until you’ve had a proper mouthful of it, though, you’re never going to appreciate the full-taste experience.

So how do you eat the works of Shakespeare?

The most effective way, I’d argue, is to perform a play or a poem by learning the words by heart. Shakespeare’s sonnets are just fourteen lines in length, so they’re a great place to start.

To learn a sonnet, you’ll have to spend some time with it, pinning it up on the walls of your interior world so that when you speak it aloud you have the chance to taste the words without looking at them on paper.

In the process of memorizing the lines you’ll come to understand how they roll together, to know the rhythm and the underlying metre. You’ll get to know the words and start to notice their layers of meaning. You’ll begin to feel the way the poem turns around line eight and appreciate the satisfaction of the final rhyming couplet.

The words might even start to feel like they’re your own.

This is a totally different experience to reading the words on the page. And, like eating cake, it’s not something anyone else can do for you. You have to try it yourself.

20170307_BLOG_EatCake

Why is it worth it?

Without having a good mouthful of the actual cake, you’ll never know about the secret ingredients the chef has added to surprise you. Without learning a sonnet by heart and speaking it aloud, you’ll never get to know its truth.

So come and find out what the fuss is all about. Take a big bite of Shakespeare.

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Uniting Pleasure With Truth

29th February 2016

'The Yellow Fairy (21st Century Version)' by Elaine flickr Creative Commons

‘The Yellow Fairy (21st Century Version)’ by Elaine flickr Creative Commons

Years ago when I was at school, memorising poetry was considered a bore and a chore; learners were generally indifferent, if not openly hostile, towards the activity. The reasons are obvious to me now; we had no choice in the matter, our teachers showed little enthusiasm for it, and as far as I can recall no one ever challenged our apathy with encouragement or celebration of its potential benefits.

 

As a result, if we thought about it at all, learning poetry seemed a pointless rote exercise. But even at the time I could not deny that once learnt, a poem was permanently lodged in the memory, just like ‘times tables’ we chanted daily. Like it or not, from childhood, I had co-ownership of some elegantly phrased language. Several decades on, I now realise that these ‘lodgers’ rewarded me generously for the trifling effort I made to acquire them; and they keep giving.

What benefits can this ongoing ‘companionship’ have for us? In the early 1960s, I was required to recite poems at local public speaking events. Despite worrying at the thought of being tested on an ability to regurgitate lines I scarcely understood and hardly heard as I uttered them, I found I could readily intone their musicality. Adults seemed impressed with the achievement too.  So, aged seven, I was really chuffed at being (momentarily) the centre of attention as I showcased regular metre and rhyme in poems such as Charlotte Druitt Cole’s The Yellow Fairy. (1) In those days, I enjoyed unsuppressed pleasure at reciting children’s verse under adult scrutiny; today, the feat of recalling it all so vividly, throughout an immense gap in time amazes me!

Discourse about the human condition, experienced through set texts, held my interest and ensured my studies in English Literature felt relevant at secondary school; throughout my teenage years, poetry’s power to express my unarticulated sensibilities – to speak, as it were for me – was empowering. Of course, pupils were still expected to memorise chunks of literature – ironically for the prosaic function of illustrating points in essays, rather than any deep, intrinsic purpose. But by this time I had also discovered and memorised poems that explored themes of love and loss –  new feelings which often seemed overwhelming and induced stunned silence in me. By learning verse by heart, I felt able to demonstrate greater expansiveness; at any moment, I could ‘piggyback’ on articulations that ‘said it’ better than I ever could. As Samuel Johnson observed, poetry offered ‘the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.’(2)

In addition to the more intense ownership of poetry learnt by heart, its durability is impressive. To carry an exceptionally well expressed thought with you through life’s journey is to retain something permanent in an irrepressibly transient world.  It represents something to cling on to in rough times and to celebrate in good; and poetry learned by heart is an extraordinarily ‘unadorned’ and ‘natural’ activity requiring absolutely no props, notes, costumes, stage, – no accoutrements whatsoever. Today, simple antidotes to the exhausting and dispiriting speed and complexity of modern life are popular; ‘mindfulness’ is sweeping the nation as the latest means of calming the mind and raising the spirits. But Learning and reciting poetry to oneself also has the power to soothe and console; and verse lends dignity to emotion. According to John Donne ‘He tames it that fetters it in verse’(3), and by acquiring it, we often understand it more completely and benefit from its abiding instruction and comfort.

British Folk Ballads are an excellent resource for teaching literary concepts to children. Simple language, strong regular rhythms, repeated four line abcb rhyme scheme and incremental repetition (in which a phrase recurs with minor differences as the story progresses) are all wonderfully effective devices to enable a listener to quickly commit verse to memory – as of course was the intention in the oral tradition of which ballads occupy a major part; they are also a useful template for creative writing, with narratives that are often full of tension, drama, mystery, comedy.  The listener/reader is often immediately plunged into a mysterious and dramatic situation, without narrator comment as in the opening of The Unquiet Grave:

Cold blows the wind to my true love

And gently drops the rain

I only had but one true love

And in green wood she lies slain. (4)

 

Ballad narrators usually do not speak in the first person (unless speaking as a character in the story), and often do not comment on their reactions to the emotional content of the ballad. So there is plenty of scope for the speaker and listener to play an active role in performance and interpretation.

My enthusiasm for poetry learnt by heart owes much to the traditional ballad form and I sincerely hope that in over three decades of teaching, I have persuaded at least a few learners that there is much more to memorizing verse than the purpose of passing examinations.

Much more could be said in on this topic but for me the simple pleasure of learning and sharing what Coleridge described as ‘the best words in the best order’ (5) is a form of art – one that it is accessible to us all.

(1)

The Yellow fairy

by Charlotte Druitt Cole

There lived in a laburnum tree
A little fairy fellow,
He wore a feather in his cap,
And he was dressed in yellow.

He sang a song the whole day long
So merry and so clever,
But when I climbed to peep at him,
He flew away for ever.

(2) Samuel Johnson Lives of the Poets 1791

(3) John Donne The Triple Fool (Songs and Sonnets)

(4) “The Unquiet Grave” is an English Ballad in which a young man mourns his dead love too hard and prevents her from obtaining peace. It is thought to date from 1400 and was collected in 1868 by Francis James Child, as Child Ballad number 78

(5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria

 

Andy About the author: Andy Revell was born in the small town of Cuckfield to which he returned after an extended sojourn of twenty years living and working in Birmingham (where he was awarded his first Degree in Education), Wolverhampton, Southampton and the New Forest. In addition to teaching, he has had stints working as a postman, factory worker, auctioneer’s assistant, hospital porter, theatre technician and auxiliary nurse.

Andy has taught a variety of subjects at a range of levels including: PGCE, English Language, Literature, Communication Studies, Media Studies, Film Studies, Drama, Integrated Science and Sports Studies having worked full time in seven different establishments over a period of 37 years.

He has 4 children and 4 grandchildren – and is immensely proud of them all!

His hobbies include Local History, Sports, Film, Theatre, Music and perhaps not surprisingly he enjoys reading poetry!

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The Patterns of Poetry

4th January 2016

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

There is a pleasure in poetic pains / Which only poets know.

– William Cowper

Mr Cowper got it right. Poetry does appear to involve a lot of pain: for evidence, teachers only have to listen to the collective cry of agony issuing from their classes whenever “poetry” is revealed as the subject for the day. And then, there’s the pain that inspires a lot of it, the pain it often expresses, and last but not least, the pain of having to memorise it. Ouch!

So, what if we wanted to share the pleasure that “only poets know”? One way to help children enjoy that unique tingle is to show them how they can turn the secret keys of the poem, and see how it works. With this knowledge, they need never feel bamboozled by a bard again. Instead, they will feel emboldened and empowered whenever they encounter “some words in a group where the lines don’t reach the other side of the paper”. This, by the way, is my favourite definition of poetry, provided by a Year 7 pupil in my first year of teaching many years ago.

The secret keys of the poem are its patterns. Reading a poem for patterns is only one way to read it, and yes, there will be finer nuances that may not come to light with this reading technique. But, the benefits are great. Patterns are clues to meaning and intention. Patterns highlight the important bits. Patterns give us a way to talk about poetry. And patterns help us learn it too.

Let me give an example. Here are the first two stanzas of a poem I often use with children around 9 – 11. It’s by Charles Causley:

Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football-pool,

Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

 

His belly is white, his neck is dark,

And his hair is an exclamation-mark.

His clothes are enough to scare a crow

And through his britches the blue winds blow.

The choice of poem is not coincidental. The child in “Timothy Winters” appears to be around the same age as them. Many children of that age are exploring the world wars and evacuation. They might be reading Michelle Magorian’s classic “Goodnight Mister Tom” or even John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. They may know or be a child suffering neglect. They have a context for the poem and its subject.

Whatever poem is chosen, it must be displayed so that everyone can see it, and so that annotations can be added “live” during what follows. An A3 version centred on a flip-chart page or a copy of the text on an interactive whiteboard is ideal. I only ever reveal this part of the poem (there are another six stanzas) at first, because focus is important to reading for patterns. Modelling is the next step. To model reading takes confidence. You have to articulate and make explicit a usually subconscious and invisible process. But it’s worth it, to show learners what it looks and sounds like when a reader is making meaning from a text. Lots of children don’t know that this is a process, or something that can be learned.

My modelling begins something like this:

“I’m going to read this poem out loud, in a particular way, looking for ANYTHING that might be a pattern. I’ll have to keep going back and re-reading because I won’t spot every pattern at first. Timothy Winters comes to school. No, nothing striking me as a pattern yet. Back to the start. Timothy Winters comes to school / With eyes as wide as a football-pool… hmm, I think I noticed several ‘s’ sounds there. Let me highlight those. Oh, and there’s that ‘oo’ in pool, school and foot. That might be a significant pattern so let me underline all those. Let’s keep going. With eyes as wide as a football-pool / Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters. Well, here’s a pattern of body parts now – I’ll circle eyes, ears and teeth. I’m thinking that can’t be a coincidence. Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters / A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters. Wow, here’s a group of words that all make me think of war or violence – bombs, splinters and blitz…

And so on. In a couple of minutes, the stanzas will be scrawled all over with arrows, notes and highlights. The children will be beginning to put up their hands to say “you’ve missed ‘as’ in the second line – there are two of them” or “there’s a pattern of colours, too”. All potential patterns will be identified, including that wonderful alliteration on the letter ‘b’ in the final line of the second stanza. Later in the lesson, we’ll all pronounce that line with emphasis on the plosive sounds and realise that it makes our lips do a “blowy out” movement, a bit like the cold winds in the poem.

Quickly, I give out copies of the whole poem, and ask the children to carry on with the pattern-spotting technique. Of course, they will usually notice a lot more connections than most adult first-time readers. And then begins the discussion of why these patterns might be important. We’ll be asking questions like “Why might the poet want to use a whole group of words that make us think about war?” or “Is it important that the poem rhymes like this?” They are great questions, and they begin the next stages of the reading process – speculation, inference, analysis and interpretation.

Some poets might take umbrage at their art being pawed over like this, but I have never found a better way to show children how poetry works. And the great thing is, that while they are reading and annotating, they are learning the poem. For a start, they are re-reading and, as any teacher knows, it is almost impossible to get children to re-read anything with purpose, so that is a huge bonus! They are drawing their own attention to its special bits. They are working out how different parts link together. They are finding joy in the repetition and the sounds. They are, without realising it, committing large parts of it to memory, and they are definitely “taking pleasure in poetic pains”.

 

Jane BransonAbout the Author: Jane Branson is an independent learning consultant in East Sussex. She worked for fourteen years in English departments in schools, before spending nine years as a member of the county council’s standards and learning team. She’s been a classroom teacher, an Advanced Skills Teacher, a head of department and a teacher-training tutor. A qualified Philosophy for Children trainer, Jane also writes regularly for Oxford University Press. She’s currently taking a creative writing class, has been the Chair of Governors at a local school for 6 years, and became a parish councillor earlier this year. You can visit her website at http://jbl.strikingly.com/ .

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Spell Casting

16th December 2015

Malkin by Camille Ralphs  The Emma Press

Malkin by Camille Ralphs The Emma Press

After a performance of my poem sequence Malkin about a month ago, one member of the audience came up to me and commented that it was interesting that the poems had a ‘double life’ – that is, they seemed to be enactive both on the page and on the stage.

The poems – which are dramatic monologues (poems written in the voices of individual characters) concerning the horrible but fascinating events of the Pendle Witch Trials, and so lend themselves easily to theatre – make use in print of unorthodox or ‘free’ spelling, through which they achieve a number of effects, some of which I’ll mention below.  I added the performative aspect to the recital of the poems only recently – since the way the poems appear in print is idiosyncratic and emotive, the only way to equal this off the page was to embody a similar impression in performance.  (Likewise, I might add, the only way I thought it possible on the page to equal the passion and empathetic engagement of a performed character was to make use of free spelling!)

Both are enactments of identity, albeit in different ways.  Both H.G. Wells (in his essay ‘For Freedom of Spelling: the Discovery of an Art’) and Simon Horobin (in his 2014 book Does Spelling Matter? ) have noted how orthodox spelling has been singled out as an indicator of class, intelligence and even moral goodness in the past; for a sequence of poems about a group of people maligned by society, no representation of language could be more appropriate than a subversion of this norm.  Additionally: on the page, as David Crystal (in Spell it Out) has pointed out, certain combinations of letters can have an emotive effect – instilled through cultural associations inherited from the language’s history – in much the same way as colours.  Consider, for example, all the emotional associations summoned by the colour red.  Something very similar happens when we are confronted with spellings like ‘kh’, ‘sc’, ‘gn’ and so on – especially when the words most commonly associated with those spellings only arrived into the English language very recently, and so still feel unfamiliar to the native speaker.

How can this sense of identity and emotion come across in a run-of-the-mill, stand-at-the-lectern-and-read-out poetry recital?  It can’t – the language is there, but the psychological upheaval isn’t.  When Allen Ginsberg performed, it frequently looked as if he was possessed by the poetry, as if for those moments he was something – or was in touch with something – larger than himself.  The same is true of the fierce vulnerability brought to contemporary performance poetry by Kate Tempest, or to internet poetry by Steve Roggenbuck.  Their popularity is clear evidence of the human connections they’ve made.  These connections, some heightenings of empathy, are surely the goal of any ambitious poetry reading.

This kind of raging performance isn’t the only effective kind, of course.  Often poetry calls for a more restrained response – quiet conviction, a slower revelation of meaning which allows the audience to meditate on what they are hearing.  Many of the performances given by Poetry By Heart participants are like this; as these are performances of work by another poet, they are to some extent also attempting to relate another identity.  Some are dramatic monologues, too.

‘Spelling’ is in itself a kind of pun – simultaneously a reference to spelling in orthography and an allusion to the oral tradition in poetry at its most ancient (the tradition of the spell or charm, or the chant of ritual).  As Simon Armitage recently stated in his inaugural lecture as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry: originally, “poetry’s instinctive address was to the ear, not to the eye.”  This is not at all to say that we should be literary luddites and ignore the technology of text – just that, where possible, it’s a good idea to use the full range of performative resources at our disposal, to make a work connective in as many ways as we can.  The ear and eye should move the mind in tandem; to produce work that maintains links not only with literature’s (and, by this, humanity’s) past but with its future, it’s pertinent to remain aware of the traditions of bard and scop as well as more recent textual developments.  (It’s worth mentioning at this point that unorthodox spelling, through the influences of the internet and txtspk, has almost become our vernacular.)

Why might it be necessary to state this case, to combine resources, augment the traditional with the avant-garde and vice versa?  Perhaps because, in the face of contemporary literary movements like ‘uncreative writing’, the lyric poet has the opportunity to loudly reassert and reinvent her relevance.  I, like so many writers, want to connect to the audience in a way that is visceral and resonant.  I want the audience to feel as well as hear the words, to know that here is poetry with blood in its mouth, that never minds its Ps and Qs and isn’t scared of spitting.  As Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  The performance of poems with a theme this dark can be a kind of community catharsis – but particularly a kind which recognises the smallest voice, which raises the smallest voice to a volume at which it can be appreciated.  That feels important right now.

There are numerous ways for a poem to wing its way into the world. To give poems a double life, or to make them doubly alive, make the most of most.

~

CamilleAbout the Author:   Camille Ralphs started in Stoke, and has studied in Lancaster, Cambridge and now Oxford.  She has been a poetry editor at international arts and literature magazine The Missing Slate since 2013; her debut pamphlet Malkin is out now with The Emma Press, and can be purchased here: https://theemmapress.com/shop/malkin-paperback/.  Some of her earlier work has been published in Earth-Quiet: Poems from the Tower Poetry Summer School 2012, Best of Manchester Poets Volume 3 and elsewhere.  She has performed her work in various venues across the UK.  In 2014, she was shortlisted for the position of Staffordshire Poet Laureate.

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Contemporary Approaches to Poetry

21st October 2015

Image from 'I Amir' by Nisha Bhakoo

Image from ‘I Amir’ by Nisha Bhakoo

Writer and video artist Nisha Bhakoo explores her own response to poetry as both reader and writer.

 

I believe that honesty and courage are the most important things when writing poetry and that is probably true as regards the act of taking a poem to your heart and sharing it with others. It’s hard when you are first starting out as a poet because it’s natural to feel insecure about your work and to attempt to write like other poets. When I first started writing poetry, I spent a lot of time thinking about impressive words that I could slot into my poems. It was completely forced and I didn’t recognise myself in any of the work. I think that with time you understand that for a poem to work, you can’t write it for anybody but yourself. You have to write it in your own unique language and write about things that matter to you. Don’t worry about how others will respond to it; write about something that you would like to read. Every writer plays with language, form, imagery, and rhythm in different ways – the diversity of voices keeps poetry interesting and relevant.

You need courage as a writer because you are opening yourself up to scrutiny. Even the act of pursuing a career in writing is a courageous one because there are people who for all kinds of reasons will try to discourage you. I’m not saying that writing isn’t an insecure career, it is! You still need to make money and you will have to make many sacrifices, but in my opinion, it’s worth it. I have done everything from working at the council to teaching English to German kids to pay the bills, and I will continue to find ways whereby I can support my career. You have to be creative with that also.

The reader has to have courage and honesty as well. Your interpretation and opinion of a poem is worth a lot, and you don’t have to share the same interpretation as a critic, your teacher, or even the poet! Like music, there are no wrong or right answers in poetry. I think that one of the many reasons people are put off poetry is because they’re scared that they will get it wrong. Michael Rosen recently tweeted “Poets don’t know all the meanings of their poems. All the meanings of the poems are made by the poet and the readers”. I couldn’t agree more. The poet doesn’t seal the poem down after she’s finished writing it – it’s very much a two way street.

I have found that the people who harp on about poetry being dead usually haven’t read any poetry from the last few decades. There are so many exciting things going on with poetry at the moment. I’m especially enjoying the work of Emily Berry http://www.emilyberry.co.uk/ and Richard Siken http://www.richardsiken.com/. You have probably heard of them but if not Google them right away!

The Poetry By Heart competition is a fantastic way of getting young people into poetry. It shakes off the tired stereotypes of poetry being dull and only for the older generation. Through the competition, the young person reflects on the poem and recites it in a way that makes sense to them. This requires both honesty and courage because when you recite a poem by heart, there is no barrier between you and the audience. I’m sure this is an exhilarating experience and it is definitely a dynamic introduction to poetry.

Many contemporary poets have started using performance, sound and film in their work and it’s inspiring to see all the new ways that people are choosing to share their poems.

I decided to attempt to make a short poetry film last year. I have a passionate interest in video art, especially the work of Bill Viola and Gretchen Bender, so it seemed like a natural and rewarding thing to do. Through the B3 Media Talent Lab scheme, I managed to get some funding for the film. It’s called “I, Amir”, and it is an uncanny look at technology and identity. I didn’t write the poem specifically for the film. I chose it for “I, Amir” because it addressed the psychoanalytical themes that I wanted to explore. I don’t feel that the film enhances the poem but it does offer up something new to think about. Seeing poetry off the page also makes you question what poetry really is.

Poetry films and performance can also make poetry more accessible and draw in non-traditional audiences, which is fantastic because I think poetry is for everybody. This is why I think the Poetry By Heart competition is so powerful because it involves the young person and makes them an active participant.

I don’t think that poetry performance and films threatens the word on the page. I will always read poetry books because I enjoy reading poems at my own pace, being alone with them, and seeing their form on paper. I know that a lot of people out there don’t own or read poetry books but poetry is still part of their everyday life. Everyone from the hip hop fan to the headline writer at your local paper has a relationship with poetry. Poetry comes in many guises from a diversity of voices – it just isn’t always labelled as poetry.

 

Photo: Chris Schulz

Photo: Chris Schulz

About the author: Nisha Bhakoo is a writer and video artist. Her poetry has appeared in Poems in Which (Issue 8), Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Cadaverine, and Morphrog 11, and she is featured in the upcoming Mildly Erotic Verse by The Emma Press. She was shortlisted for Cambridge University’s Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2015, and selected for the GlogauAIR artist residency scheme, Berlin, in 2015. She has performed her work at a variety of venues in the UK and Germany. Her poetry film “I, Amir” (supported by B3 Media) will be exhibited at Rich Mix, London, from 24 Nov. to 5 Dec. 2015. You can find out more here: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/i-amir-by-nisha-bhakoo/

 

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Organising a Competition

7th September 2015

Photo: courtesy qthomasbower ‘Big Heart of Art’ Creative Commons

Firstly, let’s get something clear: I am a busy, but essentially, pretty lazy teacher.  I’m the Head of A Level English Literature in a large sixth form college with over 200 students and several members of staff to manage.  So when I first heard about Poetry by Heart my initial reaction, like it is to so many other initiatives, was “No, I just don’t have the time.”  But this initiative was giving me  the chance to be involved in something that had made me want to become an English teacher in the first place: Poetry!

 

So what do I do to make it manageable?  I begin by using the website, www.poetrybyheart.org.uk as a learning resource.  When our AS students return for a fortnight of A2 and HE research one of the tasks they have to undertake is to explore the timeline, find a poem they love and then share it with the rest of the class; just a lovely thing to do.

I also use a drip, drip effect throughout the year.  All my AS classes learned ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Cold Heaven’ (actions included) as preparation for their exam in May, “See – you can all learn a poem off by heart.”  Then in September I start to advertise the competition and hold my first meetings.  I’m always surprised by who turns up, often some of my ‘quietest’ students want to take part.

I hold my comp just before Christmas, an entire evening given over to poetry, live music and wine.  I’m lazy but I also like to show off my students so I host the night too, inviting a panel of judges made up of local heads, the Editor of the Northern Echo and, last year, Matilda Neil who gave a stunning performance (another advantage of living in the north east.) Each year I offer the audience the chance to vote for their favourite performance and the winner receives a small prize; this generates a lot of buzz during the interval.  Teachers perform poems towards the end as the judges deliberate and the winner comes back on stage for a final recital.  As the audience leave they each receive a handwritten poem in an envelope, each chosen by my  students and copied out in their best handwriting.

But you don’t need to go to so much fuss,  just a lunchtime with the librarian and a few other judges will suffice, because what I really love about PBH are the conversations and preparations that take place along the way.  Asking students why they chose a particular poem is so enlightening. Often they find it difficult to articulate beyond “I just like how it sounds” but that’s a wonderful starting point for discussions on tone, meaning, and emotions.  Listen to competitors at Cambridge meeting for the first time and they’ll spend ages discussing their poetry choices like freshers discussing their A Level results.

Note from the editor: We might need to consult the OED on the definition of ‘lazy’ as reading the above we think it might mean creative, industrious and imaginative!

We are very grateful to one of Julie’s students who writes below about her participation in the Poetry By Heart project:

What Poetry by Heart meant to me by Emily Popple

“Last December I took part in the Poetry by Heart competition at my college, thanks to a lot of encouragement from my English Literature teacher because, for a drama student, I was very reluctant to take part. That sounds stupid, but I was not fond of poetry and I did not like public speaking – at least not when I wasn’t playing a character. But, with Julie’s help I eventually picked out two poems and learned how much I actually love reading and performing poetry. The first poem was a no brainer for me, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ by Robert Burns. Burns’ poetry has always been a huge part of my life, my mum is from Ayr and so I’ve always had that connection to it. My brother and I used to have Burns’ poems and songs as lullabies, including this one, so it was an easy choice.

The more modern poem was more difficult as, like I said, I was not a poetry fan. I ended up with ‘Two Pages’ by Choman Hardi, which I just thought was so interesting. And it’s Poetry by Heart I have to thank for my new found love for poetry, I think that some people would find not winning discouraging and maybe that would reinforce a dislike for poetry, however, in my case it has just made me more determined to enjoy poetry and take part again next year. I can now say, with confidence, that I like poetry and that is all down to Julie Ashmore and the Poetry by Heart competition.”

Julie Ashmore (right) pictured with Poetry By Heart Regional Development Co-ordinator for the North East, Griselda Goldsbrough

 

About Julie Ashmore

Started teaching in 1999 and has been Head of A Level English Literature at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington for the last 10 years. Julie also teaches creative writing to adults and always includes poetry activities. She is passionate about Shakespeare, poetry, running and her two gorgeous daughters. 

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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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Bursting into Poetry

21st July 2015

Image courtesy of Noel Hankamer – Arching Oaks

English teacher Alison Shaw recounts three experiences of getting the poem right off the page – twice out of the classroom too.

 

I love Glyn Maxwell’s idea of the first line of a poem being  ‘the precise moment at which the pressure of [a] silence breaks into utterance that has to be heard ( Julie Blake, March 2015). It puts me in mind of the transition which is the hallmark of musicals – the sudden switch from speaking to singing, the giddy energy that leaps out when a character launches into song.  Who can resist Maria in The Sound of Music when her answer ‘Raindrops on roses…’takes off into melody  ( well, perhaps many of you can, but I can’t!)

Poems often burst onto the page in a similar fashion and it struck me that it would be illuminating and fun for students to explore what could have prompted that bursting forth and show it in a mini performance.

I chose some of Shakespeare’s sonnets – ones whose first lines were direct and immediately engaging.  We read them through together and then pairs of students decided which one to make the climax of their drama.  Improvised conversations sprang up all over the class.  Friends started chastising friends; jealous lovers gave vent to their anger; there was a gradual crescendo then ..there it was…’Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day/ And make me travel forth without my cloak..’ uttered Priya, an accusing finger pointing at Emily; ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend/Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?’ said Ruth from the window corner, sitting back to back with her partner.   The poems spoken in class were spoken TO someone; they had a real purpose; two of the secrets of great poetry, according to Adrian Mitchell.  The students had personalised the poems, made them their own.  I realised they had got the poem right off the page and into themselves and the more I could help them do that, the better.

So, when I saw the first line of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’:  ‘ O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,’ , I knew my A level class would have to go outside. A blustery October day helpfully came along and we left the classroom and each student positioned themselves by a tree and shouted out the poem.  Soon they were battling with the wind more than the poem – they wanted to get those words into the turbulent air. The ‘hear, O hear!’ took on a real power, an energy it could never have harnessed in the classroom.

My most recent attempt at getting the poem off the page was a poetry flash mob for National Poetry Day.  We had a little steering committee and the poem finally chosen to commit to memory was Masefield’s ‘I must go down to the sea again’.   ( Just the first verse – it was our first attempt, after all!)  It had a suitable te tum te tum te tum te tum rhythm  – being in ballad form, we could even have practised singing it to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun  – try it sometime ( Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence)!  It also had a pleasing sense of urgency at the outset and the students loved the aural effects in the line ‘And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking’.  Copies of the poem were surreptitiously distributed at the ends of lessons and on corridors.  Rehearsals took place behind closed doors.  Planning was meticulous: place – the outdoor café; time – first break; technical support – Kevin, the Drama teacher, with whooshing waves sound effects. We were very nervous when the time came, but, all in position, on Roberto’s cue, we nimbly climbed on top of the benches ( I had practised this in advance to avoid inelegance) and, from on high, the recitation began!  We had already decided to do the verse twice, but once the rhythm and vision got hold of us we really did not want to stop!   We got a good round of applause at the end and felt quite triumphant.  Living the poetry – that seems to be an answer!

Alison Shaw is an English Teacher and volunteer gardener.

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Memorisation, Recitation and the Muslim Tradition

10th May 2015

 

A boys’ hifz class – north east London mosque. Photo: Bill Gent Used with permission.

Being involved in an organisation and a project like Poetry By Heart can be both an exciting and rewarding experience. For, watching the process through which young people commit passages of literature to memory, learn to live with it ‘inside’ themselves, and then stand up in performance in order to recite to others, stirs both head and heart.

 

But, there are other traditions of memorisation and recitation too, which are driven by their own histories, dynamics and expectations. Such a tradition is that of hifz committing the whole of the Qur’ān to memory – within the Muslim community.

The sound of the Muslim Qur’ān

‘The Qur’ān (Koran) is the sacred book of Muslims.’ Such a statement is indisputable … or is it? In one sense ‘yes’, but in another, ‘no’. In school RE pupils often learn to think of the Qur’ān as one example of the category ‘sacred books’. The resultant mental imagery is then obvious: a book consisting of pages of text of Arabic which is, of course, written from right to left. But, unstartling though this might seem, this does a great disservice to the place of the Qur’ān in the experience of Muslims across the ages. For, digging deeper into Islam reveals that the prime experience of the Qur’ān for Muslims is as sound. Indeed, fieldworkers in Islamic societies have observed, the sound of the Qur’ān is omnipresent in Muslim societies: it comes from the radios of taxicabs, from recordings played in open-fronted shops, from schools and mosque classrooms. Even the hallowed call to prayer (the adhan) might be heard from several minarets at once in the lead-up to prayer times. Yes, indeed, as one American scholar has put it, ‘The Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, has to be heard’.

But this aural quality of the Qur’ān is not just a consequence of its multi-layered use in Muslim society: it is part of its essential quality. To understand this means going back to the beginnings of the Islamic religion and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 CE). At the age of 40, Muslims believe, Muhammad had a life-changing experience in which the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) revealed to him the first words of the Qur’ān. Muhammad then committed these words to memory in order to recite them to other members of the first Muslim community in Makkah. Such revelations continued for the remaining 23 years of his life and it was during the month of Ramadan each year, it is said, that he rehearsed everything that he had already memorised. And, by the time of his death, many others within the early Muslim community had also memorised the revelations and recited them, often with great beauty and finesse, so that others could do likewise. This body of memorised and recited material constituted the Qur’ān, an Arabic word that means ‘recitation’. It was only later that the memorised material was gathered together to form a book, but this has always been secondary to the recited Qur’ān.

The chain of transmission

Thus we have the central place of memorisation and recitation within Islam, but more than this: we also have the start of a chain of transmission through which, from one Muslim generation to the next, not only the words that were revealed to Muhammad were passed on but also the sound of those words being recited. Moreover, in being memorised in Arabic (the Qur’ān is not the Qur’ān unless it is in the original language of revelation), it was embodied in the bodies and lives of the memorisers. Indeed, in the West African Muslim tradition, those who have memorised the whole Qur’ān are sometimes called ‘walking Qur’ans’.

To the present day, all Muslims will learn parts of the Qur’ān in Arabic; its recitation is both needed and vaunted in everyday Muslim life. During each of the five daily times of prayer (salat), for instance, pious Muslims recite passages from the Qur’ān out loud, particularly its opening words (al-Fatihah). There is no tradition of silent reading within the Muslim community: even when recited in private, the words will be sounded on the lips.

Within the historical Muslim community, there have always been those who have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to memorise the Qur’ān. Still to this day, such people might be encouraged to commit the whole of the Qur’ān to memory. And do remember: the Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, is in Arabic and the majority of Muslims worldwide are not native Arabic speakers. And remember, again, that this is not only a case of learning the ‘words’ but also of being able to recite them in a beautiful manner, according to tradition. As such, the fullness of the revelation which is the Qur’ān is believed to lie in both its words and the sounds of those words being recited. This has the consequence that, in order to learn the Qur’ān by heart, the learner must sit at the feet of a teacher who can correct mistakes and demonstrate to his/her pupils the appropriate sounding of the Arabic words.

The memorisation of the whole Arabic Qur’ān which consists of 30 larger sections (juz), themselves comprising 144 smaller chapters (surahs), is an extraordinary mnemonic achievement and those who achieve this have been likened to elite athletes. Such people are given the honorific title hafiz (male) or hafiza (female) but no-one knows how many huffaz (the plural term) there are in the word today, though Muslims often talk in terms of millions. Even so, it is certain that many British Muslim students who go to state or private school during the day will then also go on to mosque classes each weekday evening (and sometimes before school too) in order to complete hifz – the memorisation of the whole Qur’ān, a task that might take three or four years.

You can’t retire as a hafiz

On achieving hifz, there will be family and mosque celebrations for the Muslim boy or girl (or man or woman, for there is no age limit). But, in one sense, achieving hifz is not the end: it is also the beginning. For huffaz are then expected to retain their memorisation, so that it can be called to the front of memory at a moment’s notice, for the rest of their lives. Huffaz adopt different ways of keeping their Qur’anic memories alive – through a daily period of recitation at home, perhaps, or quietly reciting a passage of the Qur’ān on the way to and from work. But, if they find that they are struggling in this, then the month of Ramadan comes to their rescue for, during the whole of this month, additional late night prayers (tarawih) consist of the male congregation gathering together as, at the front of the often very large gathering, one or several huffaz in turn, recite a whole thirtieth section of the Qur’ān. And those who have also memorised that particular Qur’anic section are duty bound, if the reciter makes an error at a particular point, to interrupt and recite correctly so enabling the main reciter to correct himself and then continue on. In light of this, huffaz will make sure that they have rehearsed the passage for the particular day, working with another memoriser, perhaps, to identify where difficulties in wording and sounding might be met. Ramadan, then, is not only a month of fasting but is also a month of intense reading and revision.

Poetry by Heart and Qur’anic Memorisation

So, to begin where we started. There are many traditions of memorisation and recitation. In the same way as there is an annual Poetry by Heart competition leading to finals, there are also, throughout the Muslim world, Qur’anic recitation competitions. There are famous reciters, too, many of whom will be able to recite the Qur’ān in one of the several dialect forms (qira’at) in which it was passed down. The Internet has also come to play its part in each context: Poetry by Heart competitors can hear their chosen poems being read out loud by others in the same way that Muslims can hear, and be inspired by, famous Qur’anic reciters – many of them Egyptian – on CD or on YouTube. And, in each case, perhaps, the end-result is the stirring image of a human being, often young in years, who has dedicated immeasurable time and energy in order, with beauty and meaning, to recite to others. Indeed, as Andrew Motion says on the Poetry by Heart website, recitation – perhaps in all its many forms – creates both ‘an excitement and a dare’.

 

For further reading

Gent B (2011) ‘But You Can’t retire as a Hafiz: fieldwork within a British hifz class’, Muslim Education Quarterly, 24: 1 & 2, 55-63

Gent, B (2011) ‘The world of the British hifz class student: observations, findings & implications for education & further research’, British Journal of Religious Education, 33:1, 3-15

Gent, B (2015) ‘The Hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English Muslim community’, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life

Nelson, K (2005) The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān, New York: American University in Cairo Press

 

Dr Bill Gent is an Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) and editor of ‘Professional REflection within RE Today, the journal of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE). billgent49@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

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Planning For Risk

26th April 2015

Creative Commons Jake at Gocredit

When I read about the “unplanned” lesson on the Poetry by Heart blog, I was certainly nervous about trying it. In fact, a reasonable amount of planning was essential for this lesson. I now realise that what I was doing was planning for risk…which is something rather different. It is somewhat unnerving and very, very worthwhile.

 

The starting point for the lesson was to use the random poem selection facility on the Poetry by Heart website, pulling out an “unplanned” poem from their excellent anthology. My first challenge was how to solve the problem of making the randomly chosen poem available for the students to work on, as soon as it had come up. My solution was to have a poetry starter involving some memorisation. While it ran, a colleague completed the printing for us.  Thank you Emma – what a star! The starter was a group challenge – see how much of the opening of “Night Mail” you can learn in five minutes. Pretty much everybody got most of the first two stanzas, but some got further, and had fun doing it.

The poem that came up by chance  was Christina Rosetti’s “A Frog’s Fate”. When the poems arrived, I issued one A3 ideas sheet to each table of four. Their first challenge was to work out the story, the narrative. And as I started to read it for the first time, I panicked. They wouldn’t get it. They’d rebel. It was awkward, complicated language, contrived, alien, I could hardly get a grip on it myself. They’d reject it and resent what I’d imposed on them. It would be a disaster.

Very quickly, most groups had latched onto to the Frog’s death as the key component of the poem’s narrative. I pushed them. I said I needed more than that. I gave them another two minutes. Then, going from group to group, I picked up their sheets and read what they’d got to the rest of the class. One group had absolutely nailed it – and so I was able to ensure that all groups understood that basic narrative and felt secure with it.

Next: questions, feelings, atmosphere.  This was when the noise in the room changed. While the class had been trying to get the story, they were fairly loud, with some off task chat as they struggled with it. Now, knowing the shape and outline, they really settled in. Much quieter, much more thoughtful. We were all struggling with the deeper ideas, though. They wanted me to tell them what it meant and what it was about. This was where not knowing the poem before the lesson really helped. They were seeing me having difficulties, and I was responding to their questions with more questions. We were in it together. Fantastic.

With ten minutes to go, I took photos of the A3 sheets, so the class could see what the other groups had been up to. Here’s a selection of what they came up with:

– about a person, but also not

– he didn’t realise he knew nothing about the village beyond; his arrogance led to his death

– a sad horrible death, no one notices, and he dies on a hideous highway

– the highway may represent karma

– he thought he was important, but when he died, no one knew.

– it’s a fable, but about what?

In that short time they’d really got to the heart of the poem and its driving ideas. The discussion as I went round the groups had been very encouraging indeed. This is a class who seem to need huge amounts of reassurance all the time; during this lesson they developed confidence and began to work independently in a way I’ve not seen before.

Three cheers for random poetry selection…thank you, Poetry by Heart.

 

 Caroline Mortlock is  currently having a wonderful time as Lead Practitioner in English at Beacon Academy in Crowborough, East Sussex. Previously Caroline has led a variety of English departments and been an assistant head teacher. She is a voracious and prolific reader who is just beginning to start writing again. Her love of poetry began after bravely standing up and reciting “I like Noise” at the Norfolk County Verse Speaking Competition in 1972!

 

 

 

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‘Fifty Poems’ at Lucy Cavendish College – University of Cambridge

11th April 2015

Lucy Cavendish College Library

In Michaelmas Term 2012, three second year English students decided to put together a compilation of poems by female writers to celebrate the literary achievements of women. Hannah Schühle-Lewis, Kassi Chalk and Charlotte Quinney were the three students and, after their final year exams, they were able to make their idea a reality, as part of the celebrations for Lucy Cavendish College’s 50thanniversary. The aim of this project: www.lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/fiftypoems was to not only celebrate the poetic achievements of women, both in and outside the literary canon, but also to foreground the range of voices which constitute our College community. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to this fantastic project which, in many ways, reflects the ideals and purpose of the ‘Poetry by Heart’ scheme.

As the only Higher Education College for women over 21 in Europe, all the students at Lucy have vastly differing experiences.  The minimum age of 21 means that even the youngest must have some ‘life experience’ before coming to the College for their education. This is one of the greatest things about College life here – every person has a different story to tell. This is borne out by the readings of the various poems which are the speaker’s natural interpretation of the words, rather than a practiced, or artificial performance. Although several English students contributed, a literary background was not a requirement for involvement in the project – just an interest in poetry and a willingness to lend a voice to the words on the page. Whilst several of the poems were by familiar authors, such as Christina Rossetti or George Eliot, others were written by students, like Charlotte Quinney and Heather Hind, as well as Gill Saxon, who works in our College library.  By having a selection of both traditional and modern, ‘Fifty Poems’ performed a similar function to ‘Poetry by Heart’, in showing how poetry is a living, vibrant medium of expression, not just a page in a textbook.

My own route to Lucy in 2011 was via deferred entry; I received the offer when I was 19 because I would be 21 in October 2012 and so eligible for admission.  In the intervening time, I worked and travelled for six months. This experience dramatically influenced the person I am today.  After I graduate this year, I hope to develop a career in International Development, an interest which originated from my trip around South Africa. This will be a little different from reading the greatest works of English literature, but one of the fantastic things about my degree is that the vast range of texts I’ve read have become as much a part of me as any other experience – and I don’t necessarily need to carry them all with me on my future travels! As the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project demonstrates, writing is all about individuals experiencing and exploring universal emotions: love, anger, frustration, doubt, hope, joy. In the words of Marianne Moore: ‘if you demand on the one hand the raw material of poetry, and that which is on the other hand genuine, you are interested in poetry’. The vocalisation of poetry makes both this rawness and honesty of emotion accessible. Some of my closest friends declare a positive fear of Shakespeare – as do many GCSE students, no doubt – and, on the page, it does look rather formidable. But, if you watch any accomplished actor of our day on the stage, speaking the verse (from David Tennant to Judi Dench) the meaning becomes immediately apparent from their intonation and expression. Even the most inaccessible speech of Hamlet’s appears comprehensible as performers communicate their understanding of the character through the language on the page. Just as the actors on stage bring vitality to the poetry, so too do the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project and ‘Poetry by Heart’; they all show how the same poem takes on a different shade of meaning when vocalised by a new individual.

I was delighted to be invited to the final of ‘Poetry by Heart’ on the 21st March. Each of the finalists performed to an exceptionally high-standard – I did not envy the judges in trying to select a winner. It was great to hear some old favourites, like John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ and Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, but even with those familiar poems, it felt like I was experiencing them for the first time. The poems really gained an added dimension, denied them on the page, especially with the callousness and vindictive nature of the voice in the Browning. The wrapping of Porphyria’s hair around her neck became all the more powerful as the speaker maintained the same tone throughout, even when describing how passionately the victim loved her yet unknown murderer. Many of the finalists chose a poem which they’d previously selected from the 1914-1918 period and they were all incredibly moving. A favourite of mine was Rose Macaulay’s ‘Picnic’, which I had not known of before. www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/picnic/. The reciter created a perfect balance between the beauty of the Downs and the violence of the guns at the Front. Many audience members tweeted about the power of the voices, and the goose bumps and tears were felt by everyone. One tweet spoke about the performances being a fitting tribute to all those who had fallen. It was amazing how these young students brought to life with tremendous power those vivid and horrific poems, reminding us that those soldiers’ sacrifice will never be forgotten by each passing generation.

At the core of ‘Poetry by Heart’ and Lucy Cavendish’s ‘Fifty Poems’ Project  is a desire to demonstrate what is great about poetry – not only its orality, but the individual readings that it encourages. In its earliest traditions, poetry was intended to be spoken, so that those who were unable to read were still able to participate in the experience of listening and hearing the stories of the great heroes of the past. Hundreds of years on, these initiatives restore this original purpose in appealing to the ear to entice the reader in. I hope in our collection, you can find at least one poem that draws your attention. I hope too that you follow your ears and enjoy the journey through new, or old, favourites.

About the author: Elinor George is from Cardiff in Wales. 23 years old, she is a third year English student at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Before coming to University, she took two gap years, which included a self-funded 6 months of travel to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. As well as travelling, her hobbies also include going to the theatre and rowing. Elinor has rowed for her College’s first boat since her first year at Lucy. One of her favourite novelists is Jane Austen which is fortunate as her parents named her after Miss Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.

 

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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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Planning the Unplanned Lesson – Poetry by Heart in the Classroom

12th February 2015

Pietro Zanarini 2010 How to Mind Map – Creative Commons

Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the North West, Karen Lockney and Head of English, Susie Cooke at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith discuss the lesson that refused to be planned!

 

Walking into a classroom about to teach a lesson you know you could have spent longer planning, is obviously not the best thing to do with Year 10 last thing on a Friday. Yet this lesson was deliberately unplanned (beyond the most skeletal of outlines). It’s lack of potential to be planned was part of the lesson’s very concept – it offered risk and, like risks tend to do, it offered opportunity.

The aim was to use Poetry by Heart web resources to introduce pupils to poems that would be ‘unseen’ to them, but crucially ‘unseen’ to us as teachers also. We would look at poems that neither we nor the class were likely to have seen before, and try to read and respond to them together. ‘We’ll read poems with you’, we said, ‘but be warned, we might not be able to tell you exactly what they mean, we might not even be able to fully understand them yet ourselves’.  They didn’t look 100% convinced.

However our intention was to develop confidence in dealing with unseen poems as part of their exam preparation. Their views on such questions are probably not atypical: ‘We might not understand it’, ’What if we don’t find the correct meaning?’ There it is, the ultimate fear that a poem has a ‘correct meaning’ to be teased out, and even worse, teased out in the pressure of an exam room. The idea of the ‘unseen’ poem may pose a particular challenge as classes cannot be prepared in the same way as they are for named anthology poems, for instance.

We showed the class the Poetry by Heart online anthology. It has a fantastic feature called ‘random dip’ (clearly accessible in a yellow box on the home page). Press this and any one of  over 200 poems will appear. True, we know some of the poems on the timeline, but we agreed that we’d be honest about this and tell the pupils if we had a significant head start. In fact the first poem generated was ‘Blackout’ by Grace Nichols which neither of us knew.  The poem was read out and the pupils were simply asked to note down and discuss images which leapt out to them, which we then discussed together. The overall context did not present itself straightaway, but most of us immediately felt a powerful mood of danger, and we honed in on images and language which gave us that feeling.

All well and good so far, but we were keen to move on. This was all going to be light touch, emphasising the idea that encouraging confidence with poetry comes with frequent exposure that is sometimes very light touch indeed, ‘little and often’ poetry reading, vehemently denying the urge to analyse every poem to within an inch of its life. Easier said than done though, as we realised when we got ready to generate the next poem and one girl said, ‘But what does this Nichols one mean?’, pen in hand, ready to scribble our pearls of wisdom down. Our response seemed counter-intuitive: ‘We aren’t entirely sure yet, but we are interested in going back to it later’. It’s more difficult than we might think to tell a pupil directly that we aren’t going to tell them the answer because we don’t know it ourselves yet, but this was at the crux of what we hoped to illustrate.

We then used the timeline filter (click ‘filter timeline’ in the grey bar at the top of the anthology page). With a glee for the macabre the pupils chose  the ‘Nasty Ends’ category and then ‘How to Kill’ by Keith Douglas. We spent longer on this poem, asking each group to learn a 4 line stanza by heart, putting these together so we had a fairly informal class recital. They made light work of this, and it allowed us to ask them more about their own stanza, and what they noticed in those they heard from others. We talked about whether their increased intimacy with the poem had developed understanding. Some very powerful personal responses emerged about humanisation within the dehumanisation of war. Pupils tentatively offered readings and were asked to justify them. ‘But I’m just not sure if I’m right’, insisted one girl, and we encouraged her to see that could well be an A* type of comment to make, provided the justification was there, and it was. Some of us thought the weapon in the poem a grenade, others a rifle. Which was ‘the right answer’ ? We debated this, searched for clues, wondered how we’d feel in an exam offering our thoughts. A great feature of the anthology is that there are some fantastic notes under each poem, just enough to give pointers and direct further thought. Having decided it would be OK in the exam to suggest either possibility about the weapon, we looked together at the notes. Lo and behold, they suggest there isn’t clarity in the poem. The right answer was that there was no right answer. In terms of the lesson, this was a godsend; we couldn’t have planned it better if we had planned it.

This was the first of regular, sporadic lessons with the ‘little and often’, ‘light touch, deep meaning’ approach, and they will of course complement other lessons where pupils spend much more time with poems, often in more structured contexts. But this sort of risky, ‘let’s see what we get’ lesson does, we feel, have its place to raise confidence with  poetry, to take it off its pedestal a bit, allowing the brilliance of lines, images, ideas within poems to shine briefly and randomly, and to allow fresh, personal response to emerge with increasing confidence.

From left to right: Karen Lockney, Andrew Forster, Poet and Literary Officer, Wordsworth Trust and Chair of Judges for the Cumbria Final; Susie Cooke and Nikhil Choudhury, Cumbrian Champion and Year 10 student at Susie’s school.

 

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Teesdale School and Poetry By Heart

1st February 2015

Chair of Judges author Anne Fine

Teesdale English teacher Cassie Flint reflects on the use of Poetry By Heart in the classroom.

 

Teesdale School had a great start to the competition with the delightful presence of award winning author Anne Fine as our chief judge. She had some really inspirational comments to make about our students and hopefully this will help them in the next round. We also had an international judge as a colleague was visiting from Pakistan, where the oral tradition remains remarkably strong and recitation of poetry  is, for many students, a daily experience.

Teesdale competitors and judges

Our school is partnered with a school in Abbottabad which is in the north west of Pakistan where I visit each year. Each day  begins with a recitation of a passage from the Qu’ran. As a result of being a judge on the competition, Rafia Naz, our partner from Pakistan is going to be running a Poetry by Heart competition in the school in Abbottabad. The national poet of Pakistan is Allama Iqbal and he is much loved, as we love Shakespeare. Here is one of his poems

 

 

The Age of Infancy

 

The earth and sky were unknown worlds to me

Only the expanse of mother’s bosom was a world to me

Every movement was a symbol of life’s pleasure to me

My own speech was like a meaningless word to me

During infancy’s pain if somebody made me cry

The noise of the door chain would comfort me

Oh! How I stared at the moon for long hours

Staring at its silent journey among broken clouds

I would ask repeatedly about its mountains and plains

And how surprised would I be at that prudent lie

My eye was devoted to seeing, my lip was prone to speak

My heart was no less than inquisitiveness personified

Recitation by girls at the school in Abbottabad

We had prepared for our Poetry by Heart competition by having an extra session of our weekly Poetry Club: in one of these we decided to do a Memory Workshop, chiefly to help our entrants to think about which ways would work best for them in the task of memorising poetry. The main technique we tried was the use of the ‘memory palace’ which  works both visually and by association – and it seemed to work for our students . Here are some useful sites if you are interested in finding out more. We took the verse we were trying to remember and found an image from the first line and made that image as ridiculous and as larger than life as we could, so for example, in Mary Robinson’s Female Fashions for 1799 ( from the Poetry by Heart Anthology) when the first line is

A form, as any taper, fine;

it would make me think of a form, the ones I had to leapfrog over as a primary school child, brown varnished wood and little rounded rubberised feet which cushioned it on the floor- this one would be very bendy and it would be standing on the path outside my front door.

Then, inside the front door there would be a very long thin taper, made of white wax and attached to its side was a massive parking ticket – with that black and yellow edging to it- telling me I had got a fine…..and so it goes on as you construct a whole building ( or palace) within which the strong visual images from this poem will be contained.

Usually in our Poetry Club we do something which we’ve named ‘Wild Writing’ where we devise different ways in which to write poetry both individually and collaboratively. We are a mixed group, though usually sixth form students and a few teachers. One of the early experiments we tried was to do this:

  • Select One from :
  • Playing with the idea
  • Experience
  • Concept
  • Narrative

and then having identified  a ‘way ‘ to write we then came up with a list of words. Our first ones were: element, bus, oak and yellow. We then wrote poems using these parameters.

We also tried our hand at writing song lyrics, writing two lines each, a villanelle and found inspiration from the poetry of the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik ( whom we have recently discovered).

Here is one of our collaborative ones;

My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,

striding out along the midnight sidewalk:

I am painted in navy blue and the

thin strips of luminescence cast down by the moon.

The calm footfall is a son

only I hear.

Lately though we have been looking through the Poetry by Heart timeline and selecting ones to read and give our reactions to as we prepare for the next round of the Poetry by Heart Competition.

 

Memorising poetry

TED talk on memory

How to use a memory palace

 

Cassie Flint

I have been an English teacher for many, many years and throughout all the changes I have seen, the one constant in all my English teaching has been my love of poetry. I have written myself since I was a young girl and maybe, being the daughter of a novelist, in a way encouraged me. I grew up in St.Ives in Cornwall at a time when there were great artists there and I met them as my father’s friends. For that reason too the sea and the literature which asks the big questions in life appeal to me.  In my later years I have begun to travel and have been lucky enough to be part of a British Council Connecting Classrooms Project which takes me to Pakistan and to work in a school there each year. You might be interested in an article I published on my last visit: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/07/schools-taliban-power-of-education

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Why Poetry?

19th January 2015

Chew Valley Participants at their Poetry By Heart competition.

Deputy Headteacher Chris Hildrew reflects on the importance of poetry in his personal and professional life and his commitment to his ‘Poetry Promise’.

 

This year, I have made a Poetry Promise. My promise is to mark each month of the year with a favourite poem, shared online, with an explanation of why that particular poem is so special to me. The aim of the Poetry Promise is to raise the profile of Poetry by Heart and, by extension, share the love of poetry itself. How could I say no? I was knee deep in favourite poems on New Year’s Eve, trying to find that one I wanted for August!

Reflecting on my choices, I took stock of my relationship with poetry. Poetry has always moved me, really ever since I can remember. But it was at secondary school that it took hold of me, truly possessed me. I wrote tortured teenage verse in my diary, tried in vain to write a sestina that worked, and sat back in awe as my A-level Literature course took me on a tour through time from Chaucer to Heaney. It was the work of Sylvia Plath that was, and remains, my all-time favourite. Reading her work left me feeling like the hanging man in her poem of that name: “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.” I sizzled in the electricity of her verse.

As a teacher, I’ve always looked forward to teaching poetry. There’s something magical about unlocking it, about seeing it click into place in a student’s mind. Poetry never fails to provide those lightbulb moments. But what is it about poetry that makes it so distinct?

One of my favourite lessons that I planned as an NQT, and still use today, is an introductory lesson for A Level literature. In it, I present a series of texts: some prose, some poetry. Some of them are presented as written, others disguised: poems laid out like prose, prose laid out like poetry. I challenge the students to see through the disguises, with the aim of answering the question: what makes a poem a poem? The answers don’t really matter; the discussion is always mind-bending.

From years of teaching that lesson, I think I feel comfortable with the answer “a poem is a poem if we say it’s a poem.” Because the act of saying “this is a poem” lifts the language “above a common bound”, and gives it muscle. Words in poems have extra heft, like they’re loaded with lead shot; but they are nimble, their associations skipping across the page like spiders on a web.

When the occasion demands it, only a poem will do. Wedding, funerals, falling in love, the pain of goodbye…at these moments, dribbling prose won’t cut it. Only the poem can do the emotional heavy lifting required by these landmark events. That’s why the poet laureate is still such a key role, as Carol Ann Duffy has been admirably proving since 2009, in capturing landmarks in our national life. I still think “Translating the British” did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of London 2012.

Chew Valley Poetry By Heart participant.

As a teacher in a school it’s my job and my pleasure to open up the spinning world of poetry for young people, not so they can pass exams and memorise the difference between a trochaic and an iambic rhythm, but so they can sit back with their eyes shut as they try to touch the edges of the emotions they have just experienced in the words of another. When I saw our students in our Poetry by Heart final this year, I almost forgot to breathe as they animated, inhabited, lived their recitations. The head judge was moved to tears. I will never forget it.

That is why poetry.

Chris Hildrew with his Poetry Promise

 

 

 

Chris Hildrew is Deputy Headteacher of Chew Valley School near Bristol. Follow @chrishildrew and read Chris’s blog at chrishildrew.wordpress.com

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Introducing Poetry By Heart at Simon Langton G.S. for Boys

12th December 2014

Image courtesy of the Simon Langton School website

Poetry By Heart at the Langton

I have always loved reading poetry. Poets seem to have that knack of explaining things that we don’t know that we know. But when poetry is on the curriculum horizon there is a cacophony of sighs and complaints in my classes so the question was: how can I possibly get our boys interested in learning poetry?

 

I needed something to spur things on so I decided to film a montage of rap artists and teachers reading poetry; teachers who one would not expect to be interested in poetry. A physics and maths teacher very kindly obliged. And then I had a brainwave (well so I thought)! If only I could get our Director of Rugby to read a poem on my montage then maybe I could convince the boys that poetry was for all sorts of people not just bookworms like myself. I plucked up the courage to ask him and hoped that he wouldn’t think I was completely bonkers. How wrong could I have been? Nicky was so kind in giving his time and immediately said that he would recite a poem that his coach had read to him and his team during his time as a  Fijian international rugby player – ‘The Man In The Glass’ by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.  Result! I played this montage to my year 10 class – they cheered when the rap artists and teachers came on but there was a deathly silence with mouths agape when Nicky read his poem. I felt that I had scored a try!

 

Simon Langton G.S. Director of Rugby Nicky Little reciting, ‘The Man in the Glass’ 1934 by Peter Dale Wimbrow Senior

 

Now they keep asking me if I will make another film with other teachers (planned for the New Year) and poetry lessons with  this class are just delightful and engaging. I’d like to think that the montage helped in many ways to neutralise an inbuilt fear of poetry. But, to be honest, it didn’t help me to get potential competitors queuing round the block!

I was so lucky to have such delightful sixth form students who volunteered through seeing the Poetry By Heart posters, strategically placed around the school.  Our competition preparation was very enjoyable. A local poet, Lynne Rees, conducted a ‘Making it Mine’ Masterclass where the competitors spent a relaxed morning discovering and exploring nuances in meanings in their chosen poems. I also gave one to one lunch-time coaching sessions leading up to the competition day. I really wanted the big day to strike a relaxed yet formal note. I think we managed that with cake and biscuits while the judges did their task. We had some wonderful recitations – particularly from our winner who really opened my eyes to a new understanding of Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ and our runner up who had us in stitches with ‘God, A Poem’ by James Fenton.  Now we’re really excited getting ready for the regional final to be held at the Gulbenkian theatre at the University of Kent on January 16th 2015.

I’ll be honest – I had never learnt a poem before and I was not convinced that learning one would help in my understanding. But attending the Poetry by Heart workshop in October at the British Library in London turned me into an avid convert and gave me a wonderful opportunity to develop my teaching of poetry. I decided to learn ‘The Dancers’ by Edith Sitwell. At every opportunity, in the shower, driving to work, weeding the garden, I would try to recite it. I can confidently say that my increased love for, and understanding of, this poem has been overwhelming through learning it. We have a new way forward now – I’m developing more masterclasses with Lynne across the three key stages to introduce all students to the magical world of learning poetry.

 

Liz was born in Newcastle under Lyme and read Human Biology at Loughborough University. She thoroughly enjoyed working for the next nineteen years in scientific and pharmaceutical research. Nevertheless, on being made redundant, she took the plunge and chose to have a change of career going back to her first love – literature. She read English literature at Kent University and completed a PhD researching early modern women writers. She now teaches English at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury , Kent.

 

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Introducing Poetry By Heart to the Primary Sector

2nd December 2014

She Sells Sea Shells by She_Who_Must 2007 Creative Commons

Last week saw Poetry By Heart Director, Julie Blake, taking Brighton University first year Primary Education undergraduates through their poetry performance paces!

 

Starting with some rhythm and rhyme, and not a few comic images, we kicked off by creating a register poem. I couldn’t remember the names but I could remember the cat-lovers and the girls whose names rhymed with frilly! A couple of tongue-twisters got us warmed up for reciting fast and slow, loud and low, after which we went for the full body workout with John Foster’s ‘The Dinosaur Rap’. Pity the class on the floor below… We needed a rest after that so we experimented with storyboarding as a method for really getting inside Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘From A Railway Carriage’ and had it memorised as a class (each person taking a couplet) within half an hour. I finished by putting my money where my mouth had been all afternoon, and recited Irene McLeod’s ‘The Lone Dog’.

But why? Poetry By Heart is for 14-18 year olds? Well, since we launched in 2012, learning poems by heart has been inscribed in the National Curriculum for primary education and we have had very many enquiries from primary teachers and advisors asking us if we can help. Always happy to share what we’ve learned and to collaborate with interested colleagues, we are now working on a primary resource pack. Well, to be honest, we’re not quite sure yet if it will be a primary resource pack, or a Key Stage 2-3 pack, and we welcome all opportunities for dialogue, trialling and piloting. Please get in touch if you’d like to join the conversation:  info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.

Meanwhile, during 2013-14 we were delighted to collaborate with Dr Josie Brady and her PGCE Primary students at Birmingham City University on an action research project. Dr Brady reports on their experience here:

The NATE Conference and the Poetry by Heart Primary Project: A highlight of an academic year.

A real highlight of the 2013-14 academic year for me was the Poetry by Heart Primary Project as helping PGCE Primary students to develop pedagogies for poetry as a verbal art in primary and early years classrooms was both a tremendous challenge and a great joy. The NATE conference in Bristol in July marked the culmination of this endeavour as a group of my PGCE students presented their ideas, experiences, reflections and findings to an audience of teachers, academics and consultants.

Presenting at the NATE conference Bristol July 2014

Looking at the above photo now, I still feel that rising swell of pride and I know students were overjoyed at the positive responses they received. Thank you NATE delegates and thank you Poetry by Heart for making the project possible and supporting us along the rocky way!

Before I sign off, I leave the last words to two of my students, Emily and Kate, who are of course, now fully qualified teachers enjoying and enduring the highs and lows of busy Autumn terms.

“Being part of a project that has collaborated with Poetry by Heart has been a fantastic experience. I had undertaken a very successful project on poetry memorisation in a primary school with thirty 7 and 8 year olds and needless to say I was apprehensive about the outcomes initially. However, I found that not only did the children gain a lot from the project but I did too. My enthusiasm and knowledge of poetry, and poetry from memory, has dramatically increased and having the opportunity to discuss the outcomes at the NATE conference is something that I will always treasure. The support from Poetry by Heart, Julie and Tim in particular, has been fantastic and this collaborative project, I feel, has been extremely successful. The thought of implementing poetry memorisation and recitation into primary schools is now such an exciting thought and I think I can say that speaking not only for myself but other PGCE graduates who were involved in the project too.” Emily

“Going to NATE and sharing, alongside fellow students, my learning journey with professionals was a fantastic experience. Just to be able to hear other people’s opinions on what we have done and where we could go from there was very interesting. It gave me fresh insights which were truly enlightening.”  Kate

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The 3 Rs: Rhythm Rhyme and Recitation

13th November 2014

Photo by Fay Lofty

I am in the extremely fortunate position of working with teenagers for a job and so initially when invited to contribute to the Poetry By Heart blog I thought I’d write a piece about teenagers and poetry.   Just recently, however, I have had conversations with three people at different points on the great spectrum of life and a common theme emerged in our conversations which took me to the heart of Poetry By Heart. I have had the delights of conversing about poetry with a pre-schooler, a teenager and an octogenarian and this is what I learned.

 

Let’s reverse the natural order of things and consider the octogenarian first.  Belinda read English Literature at Cambridge University during the Second World War and today, in what some people might foolishly consider her dotage, is the sharpest mind I know.  Her greatest solace is her mind’s ability to recall Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Frost and Donne when her body fails her and this, she argues, is the reason her brain is still fighting fit when other parts are less so. Not just lines but entire poems come back to her as easily as my mobile phone number comes back to me.  She uses this ability now to connect to people and to give them an insight or frame of reference for her world.  Reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 71 in its entirety with its ear-catching iambic pentameter and powerful half-rhyming couplet to end, gives her comfort and leaves her audience wanting another poem and in no doubt as to the state of her mind.

Going to the middle of the spectrum takes us to a delightful young man, spoken word poet and playwright, Tommy Sissons who has just finished his A Levels and is about to go to university.  Interested in what teenagers find engaging about poetry, I asked Tommy to tell me why he loves poetry and this was his reply:  ‘I came to love poetry almost purely through the form of it being spoken. I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry but I find personally that you can connect with verse so much more when it’s performed out loud. You can appreciate the rhythm of the words and the emotions behind the poem a lot more.  A lot of teenagers can see poetry as a dry, old-fashioned form of expression but they’ve only been taught the work of poets that have been dead for hundreds of years in vernacular that modern youth can’t always relate to. When they are presented with spoken word (in a modern form) it speaks to them. I know lots of people my age that have come to love poetry through spoken word.’  I found the genre of rap very hard to access and Tommy was the first person who managed to get me to understand and enjoy rap – which is, as he says, arguably the vernacular of teenagers and relies heavily on rhyme schemes, solid rhythms and being made audible. Poetry By Heart may be occupying a slightly different space in the performance of poetry but it recognises and celebrates the acoustic quality of poetry.

My final conversation was with a four year old and was about the delights of the Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.  I asked this small person what her favourite poem was and she trotted forward with a mauled copy of Donaldson’s book.  We read it together (twice), both enjoying the familiar cadences of a much-loved and familiar work.  I noticed that while I was reading, her lips were moving and asked her how much of the book she could remember.  She could recall nearly all of it with a few prompts which were related to the rhyming pattern.  When I asked her what she loved about it and why she’d chosen it as her favourite, after some consideration she replied, ‘it’s like dancing, only with words.’ And maybe whether we’re eight, eighteen or eighty that’s what we are doing when we get up and recite a set of words in our head – we’re dancing with words.

About the author

Fay Lofty works full-time as a Widening Participation Officer at the University of Brighton on an outreach programme with young people.  She has a BA (Hons) in Literature from The Open University and is currently doing an MA in Education at the University of Sussex.  In any time considered ‘spare’ she reads and tries to write.  She also runs a bookclub in the very small rural Sussex village where she lives and encounters many other inspirational readers and writers.  She has two daughters.

 

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Fey Popoola’s Poetry By Heart Journey

31st October 2014

Fey Popoola (third from left, front row) at the Poetry By Heart 2014 National Finals held at the National Portrait Gallery. March 2014

Poetry By Heart 2014 National Finalist Fey Popoola reflects on taking poems to heart.

 

I never thought poetry recitation could be so much fun until I tried it…

 

When Kathleen, my English teacher at college last year, introduced me to the Poetry by Heart competition, I must admit that my motivation to join was more escapism than enthusiasm. It was my last year of college and I was feeling the pressure of A2 revision, university applications and impending adulthood. I needed something else to focus on – and poetry recitation seemed just academic enough to not make me feel guilty for cutting my revision time a little short. (Poetry is wider reading, right? Right??)

The Havering Sixth Form College competition was cosy; just four contestants at the back of our library, with a few snacks and some cake (tip to teachers: bring cake!). I could immediately sense, when we were reciting our poems, that there was an atmosphere of respect and togetherness in the room. The whole process of choosing two poems from the anthology, spending hours learning them by heart and then sharing them with friends is really a bonding experience – and this feeling only intensified as I progressed through the competition, right down to the final.

For the last few months I’ve been an ambassador for the Poetry by Heart competition, talking about my experiences at schools, contributing to PGCE workshops and conferences organised by  NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) and NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education). Perhaps the most common question I’ve been asked about the competition is, “How do you do it? How do you memorise a poem?” My answer is always somewhere along the lines of: “It’s fun. When it’s fun, it isn’t hard.”

I think that’s the main difference between what we think of when we hear “poetry recitation” and what we see and experience during Poetry by Heart. Instead of being force-fed mass produced interpretations, we internalised these poems, forming our own personalised meanings. This was especially noticeable when we had people reciting the same poems in some rounds. They were the same words, but vastly different understandings of those words.  Each person reciting brought a new dimension to their poem.

I believe that when you learn a poem by heart, you access it at a level that is almost impossible to reach just by reading it on a page. Unlike in an exam setting, where you focus on the metaphors and enjambment and other techniques, you actually get to the heart of the poem and can explore its tone, pacing, rhythm and melody. These things can often get overlooked in the classroom.

One of the best things about Poetry by Heart is the atmosphere. There’s a sense of calm and friendliness in the air, from the school competitions all the way through to the finals; we all want each other to succeed. I think that’s because of the shared journey we have all taken with our poems. We are in the company of other people who love – or are starting to love— poetry, which shifts the mood from that which we sometimes experience in our school classes. It creates a safe place for us to geek out about literature, and provides accessible exposure to a variety of poets and poems, from Tichborne to Armitage.

My advice to anybody considering entering the competition: Go for it! You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. You’ll learn so much about yourself, how you learn and how much you can achieve. And to boot, nothing is cooler than reciting poetry at parties (I promise!).

 

Fey in full flow at the national Finals 2014

 

Best of luck and maybe see you around!

Fey Popoola (National Finalist 2014 and Poetry By Heart 2015 Ambassador)

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Is there a poem in your head?

3rd October 2014

The nationwide Poetry and Memory survey launched on 2nd October, UK National Poetry Day. The survey is part of the Cambridge University’s Poetry and Memory Project, which is investigating experiences of poetry learning, and examining the relationships between memorisation, recitation and understanding. David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger of the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University have been very interested in the work of Poetry By Heart and some of the research undertaken as part of their Cambridge Poetry Teaching Project appears in the Resources section of the Poetry By Heart website. Project Researcher Dr Debbie Pullinger tells us about this new and exciting Poetry and Memory Project.

 

Do you have a poem in your head? Then do come and tell us about it. It can be any poem, and any type of poem – we just ask that it isn’t a song lyric or a nursery rhyme.

There have been quite a few poetry polls over the years, mostly directed at finding the nation’s favourites. Our aim, however, is rather different. We want to discover what poems people know by heart – what poetry resides in our collective memory, at this moment, in October 2014. To the best of our knowledge, this is first time a survey of this kind and scope has been attempted.

As well as asking what the poem is and when you learned it, we’re also asking a couple of open-ended questions about what it means for you. The important thing here is that we’re emphatically not looking for GCSE English answers, or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’. Rather, we want to know about the personal significance of this particular poem. This might be to something do with the meaning, but it could also be to do with the sound. It may be that there’s one line which is particularly special. It may be that how you understand or feel about the poem has changed over the years.  It may be that you associate the poem with a particular occasion or period of your life. Or, it could be that the poem you know actually has very little meaning or significance for you at all – and we want to know about that, too.

Straight off, we expect to be able to announce what poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation. It will be interesting, too, to see how they map on to those favourites lists. But aside from producing a headline top ten, there’s a great deal more that we’ll be able to do with this data.  We’ll be able to investigate, for example, the reasons why people now learn poetry, and the perceived value of doing so. We’re particularly interested in questions about the ‘use’ of learned poems – how they might act as an emotional resource, contribute to a sense of identity, assist in the development of an ear for language, engender a sense of community, play a role in memories of a personal or communal past. What does knowing a poem mean for someone, and indeed what different things does it mean for different people?

We’re really looking forward to seeing the responses to the survey and sharing the results. But, of course, its success as a piece of research hangs on getting a good response – which means we need lots of people to take part. So we really do need your help. You can do this in two ways.

Take part in the survey – if you have a poem in your head, please come and tell us about it. http://www.poetryandmemory.com/

 

Spread the word –  even if you don’t know a poem yourself, do pass the word on to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. I should also mention that it will be possible for print out a copy of the survey to give to anyone unable to access it online. They can then post it back to us using the Freepost address.

You can get spreading any way you fancy. Phone a friend. Find us on Facebook (The Poetry and Memory Project). Tweet on Twitter: @poetryandmemory #poetryandmemorysurvey.  Print a poster and display it on your favourite notice board.

Whatever you can do, we’ll be enormously grateful.

The survey runs from 2nd–31st October and is open to anyone in the UK aged 18 or over. For more about the survey and the Poetry and Memory Project: www.poetryandmemory.com

image of staff member

Debbie Pullinger is the project’s full-time researcher, based in the Faculty of Education, where she also teaches on the Children and Literature course. Her doctoral project, completed in 2013, was on orality and textuality in poetry written for children. Debbie worked in primary teaching, in educational publishing, and as a freelance writer before returning to academia in 2009.

 

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Summer Student Challenge

2nd July 2014

As the end of another summer term and another academic year approaches we know that English Departments are  always thinking of ways in which students can be encouraged to widen their reading over the holiday period. So, here are 6 ideas that make use of the Poetry By Heart website, inviting students to explore the online anthology of 200+ poems and preparing them, we hope, for enthusiastic participation in the 2015 competition.

 

Poetry By Heart – 6 Summer Holiday Activities for Students

1)   Listen to a poem
Yes, really.  Just listen to a poem.  Go to the Poetry By Heart website and click on ‘A selection from the finals’.  Sit back and enjoy the eight videos of last year’s competition finalists reciting poems.

2)   Listen to some more poems!
Explore www.poetryarchive.org and find a remarkable archive of poets reading their poems and also contemporary poets reading classic poems.

3)   Read a poem
Go to the Poetry By Heart website www.poetrybyheart.org.uk and read a poem. There are over 200 poems on the website from the year 1000 to 2014.  Go to the Anthology section and then either:

– use the Random Activity ‘Lucky Dip’ button or
– scroll through and pick a poet you like the look of or
– select the filter option from the top right and choose one of the topics you like the sound of or
– type a random word into the search box in the top right and see what comes up.

4)   Bring a poem to life
Choose a second poem and make it into a work of art.  You could:

– make a collage based on the poem
– transform the poem into a short comic strip or graphic novel or one act play
– make a short film, inspired by the poem.

5)   Write a poem
Write a poem in the style and/or form of one of the poems in the anthology. For example, there are 17 sonnets in the anthology. You can find them by simply typing ‘sonnets’ in the ‘search this site’ box on the homepage. Write your own sonnet and when you are happy with it see if you can learn the 14 lines by heart.

6)   Memorise a poem
This is a challenge but might be easier than you think.  Choose a poem from the Poetry By Heart Anthology and learn it off by heart.  Use the ‘Poetry recitation – developing a strategy’ document from the ‘Resources and Downloads’ section of the website for some top memory techniques.  Entertain your family and friends by reciting your poem and challenge them to learn one too!

If you enjoy these activities get involved in a Poetry By Heart competition at the very start of next term at your school/college and be in with the chance to win a weekend in London!  You will need to learn two poems from the Anthology in order to compete – one from before and one from after 1914 and you will need to be aged between 14 and 18.  Check out those videos of last year’s winners for inspiration and remember that judges will be looking not for the best actor but the reciter who can really share an understanding and heart felt appreciation of their chosen poems with an audience.

Full details of the competition can be found at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk or by emailing the Poetry By Heart team info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.  You can also follow us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/poetrybyheartcompetition and Twitter @poetrybyheart or give us a call on 0117 9055338.

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