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Poetry By Heart Blog

Poetry By Heart Goes Global

3rd February 2022

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For a long time we’ve had schools beyond England enquiring about taking part but the world is a very big place and we’ve been thinking about how best to respond in a meaningful way. In recent years, we’ve supported the English Language Schools Association in France in running a Poetry By Heart France competition, and we helped Talk The Poem in Jamaica to set up their competition too. And we maintain friendly relations with our colleagues in the USA, Canada and Ireland who run similar competitions too.

But at last we’ve decided the best way to find out how to run a Poetry By Heart international competition is to start with a small-scale pilot this year and to work closely with a modest number of schools on the future design. So, if you teach in a school that is not in England, or if you have a partner school elsewhere in the world, or if you have friends, colleagues and family who teach in other countries, get in touch at info@poetrybyheart.org.uk to find out more about the pilot. We’d love to talk to you! This is your chance to shape what happens!
The international pilot competition will offer…

· bespoke support by email, phone and Zoom to help you and your colleagues to develop Poetry By Heart in your school

· access to our online Poetry Forums (we’ll figure out the timezones as we go!) to meet and share ideas with the PBH team and other PBH teachers

· a digital copy of our 2021-2022 poem-a-month calendar with monthly learn-a-poem challenges to help you get pupils started

· access to the 2022 competition kit with downloadable certificates, fun Zoom backgrounds (in case you’re teaching online at any point), launch slides and learn-along poem resources

· open access to all the poem collections on the website, for use in the competition as well as for other teaching and learning purposes

· access to the online competition entry system for easy video upload of your winning performances by the deadline of midnight on 30th April 2022

· up to 12 pupil entries in total in the Classic competition category, up to 3 per eligible Key Stage.

Every pupil correctly entered will receive a digital certificate. A number of finalists in each key stage will be given individual feedback about their performances and invited to polish and resubmit them (if they want to) for our final judging panel of top poets whose task will be to select a Poetry By Heart International champion in each key stage. In this pilot phase we will work with participating schools to explore the most realistic options for celebrating these champions.

The Poetry By Heart international competition pilot does not include countries that already have equivalent competitions such as Ireland, France, Canada, Jamaica and the USA. However if you’re teaching in those countries we’ll be very happy to link you up with your national competition so you can take part there.

We’d love you to take part in the Poetry By Heart international pilot competition. Can we count you in?

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My poetry by heart learning journey

1st December 2021

In this week’s blogpost, UEA teacher educator Vicky Christoforatou shares the story of her personal journey in learning poems by heart, starting in Year 1 of a primary school in Greece and leading to Poetry By Heart in Norfolk. If you have a poems by heart journey to share with us, we’d love to hear from you!

One of my earliest school memories was a poetry recital as part of a whole school assembly on the theme of nature. There were 20 of us in Year 1 (6-7 years old) and we were each allocated a different but thematically linked poem. My poem was ‘The Little River’ by Zacharias Papantoniou, a prolific early 20th century writer whose work celebrated the language of the people as opposed to standard Greek. The poem is a simple dialogue between a young persona and a playful little river in regular rhyme and question-answer structure – not that any of that mattered to my Year 1 self! I loved playing the part of the little river while my mum asked the questions helping me rehearse at home. Standing in front of the big mirror in our living room I practiced different voices, expressions, gestures demanding an engaged audience (any adult in the room) and feedback on the preferred performance. ‘The Little River’ has stayed with me and I taught it to my daughter when she was younger as we strolled along River Wensum in Norwich.

Learning poems by heart was part of our everyday experience in class and not just an activity for special occasions. We practiced choral readings with our teacher and our homework was routinely to memorise a stanza or a whole poem to be delivered in front of the class the following day. Progressing to high school, I learned more complex poems; free verse, longer epic poems and poems set to music. The words, the lines, the stanzas are still with me like a personal anthology. Recently, my current PGCE cohort asked me to contribute a poem to their anthology celebrating National Poetry Day. The theme was choice. I chose Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy; a poem that taught me not to be afraid and to enjoy the journey. I have no recollection of analysing poems in class; we never annotated the features, but we learned the different meters; we never wrote critically about the poems but sometimes drafted our own poems, changed the poems into other forms and talked about the ideas. Every time I came across a new poem, I would size it up; a product to be consumed, not analysed. How long? Does it rhyme? Can I hear the rhythm? Can I see the images? All of these would help me memorise it and make it my own.

learning journey

By the time I took the module Introduction to British Poetry as an undergraduate of English Language and Literature at the University of Athens, I considered myself an expert on poetry; just because I had read and remembered so many poems (although none in English). During those early encounters with literary criticism and analysis, I did not feel overwhelmed. It seemed logical that there are different ways to analyse a poem as there as different ways to perform and recite a poem. When faced with an abundance of poetic terms, I was not confused; I had a bank of poetry under my skin to give flesh to the labels.

When I started teaching English in South East London, September 2000, my relationship with poetry was shaken. I struggled to plan lesson and activities that would produce effective analytical paragraphs written by my students. Matching the tasks to the assessment criteria felt like wearing ill-fitting clothes, uncomfortable and restrictive. It must have been around 2014 , a chance discovery of this competition –Poetry By Heart- giving me license to give the poems back to my students, hear their voices while allowing them to develop their own anthologies, their own journeys, and interpretations. At first, it was not about entering the competition; it was about validation and the freedom to recite poems in class, with the class.

Poetry by Heart brought poetry home for me…

 

Vicky Christoforatou is a Lecturer in Education on the Secondary PGCE Course (English) at the University of East Anglia. Vicky also leads the Lesson Study module as part of the MA Educational Practice and Research.  Having enjoyed a long and rewarding career working with secondary school pupils and their teacher, Vicky’s main interest is developing innovative professional development opportunities for mentors and early career teachers. Vicky’s favourite poem is ‘Ithaka’ by C.P. Cavafy.

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National Poetry Day – with popcorn and Parliament!

18th November 2021

Today’s blog is a double feature about what Poetry By Hearters got up to National Poetry Day on 7th October 2021.

First, a talented group of Poetry By Heart 2020-2021 finalists and their teachers went off to 10 Downing Street for a special reception hosted by the then-new Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi. After a quick trip to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey and a rehearsal on Parliament Green, students performed their winning poems and the minister read one that is close to his heart, ‘How To Cut A Pomegranate’ by Imtiaz Dharker. We also had readings by two PBH teacher-poets, Oliver Lomax and Olga Dermott-Bond, by poet and PBH advisor and judge Daljit Nagra, and by surprise guest poet, Lemn Sissay. We ended by leading a shared reading aloud – students, teachers, parents, civil servants, the Secretary of State, the Permanent Private Secretary and the Downing Street staff – of the October calendar poem for Black History Month, Eloise Greenfield’s ‘Harriet Tubman’.

You can watch our short film of the visit below – and as you see our brilliant class of 2021 taking selfies on the steps of Number 10, think about where Poetry By Heart could take you and your students…

 

In our second feature looking back on National Poetry Day, Henna Riaz from Eastbury Community School in Essex takes us through her school’s special event filled with poems, fuelled by unbridled creativity, novelty badges and plenty of chocolate!

National Poetry Day is the annual mass celebration on the first Thursday of October that encourages all to enjoy, discover and share poetry. This year the event took place on October 7 and the theme was choice. To celebrate this event, I collaborated with the team at Poetry By Heart and challenged students at Eastbury Community School to find a poem, learn it and recite it aloud.

Students from years 7-10 eagerly accepted this challenge and hearing their recitations was an enjoyable way to celebrate National Poetry Day. It was truly an honour to host the event and celebrate their incredible recitations. We sat back and watched the recitals whilst enjoying a selection of snacks – popcorn, cakes, crisps and plenty of chocolates of course! Certificates and Poetry By Heart badges were also awarded to each competitor for their courage and creativity.

Each recital was fantastic, but the judging panel decided that the winning recital would be awarded to Emine Omer. She had constructed her own inspirational poem to recite. Emine’s recitation of her poem ‘Stereotypes’ was filled with immense passion and enthusiasm. Have a read of her poem below. Overall, it was truly a pleasure to hear amazing recitals by our students.

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“Amazing! I won and my performance was shared and seen by many. I am glad they heard about my feelings towards discrimination.” Emine Omer

“I recited ‘Letter to Lockdown’ and I took part in this competition to boost my confidence. I found it most enjoyable to recite the poem. For me it was fun, different and pleasantly surprising.” Trinity Lobow

Stereotypes
Just because I am a Muslim
It does not mean that I am a terrorist.
It does not mean that anyone can rip me apart

With a stereotype.
Just like everyone else
I am free as well.

No one can judge me by my identity.
No one can judge me by my freedom either.

Just because I am a Muslim

It does not mean that I am not allowed to have:

Dreams, hopes and ambitions.
I have the ability to change the world
Just like everyone else does.

Emine Omer

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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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Poetry By Heart Finalists Celebration 2021 – The Movie!

10th September 2021

We’re pleased to present a short film of the 2021 Poetry By Heart Finalists Celebration Event held at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. The film gives a flavour of the day and includes interviews with some of our wonderful student performers and poet judges. If you want to remember this magical day in July or see what could be in store for you next year, start here!

The Poetry By Heart 2022 Finalists Celebration Event will be held at Shakespeare’s Globe, London in the summer term. To take part and be in with a chance of performing there, find out more about this year’s competition here. Registration is open for schools/colleges here.

 

 

With thanks to Fern Scott and her team at Great Scott Films for their ongoing collaboration with Poetry By Heart and their filmmaking wizardry.

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The Pandemic, Poetry and Healing

15th April 2021

All the way through this year’s Poetry By Heart competition, teachers have been telling us that poetry has been a lifeline for lots of children and young people. We’re intrigued by the idea that poetry might help us all to find our way out of the Covid tunnel, but we’ve been hard pressed to put a finger on what it might do or why. We invited Dr Mariah Whelan, the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College, Cambridge, to help us understand it through the perspectives she brings to bear from an understanding of trauma.

 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young people in the UK. If you work in education you’re probably acutely aware of this but the data is now starting to confirm it, too. In a survey of 11-17 year olds conducted by the NHS in 2020, 54.5% commented that lockdown has made their lives significantly worse[1]. Even more worrying, however, is the fact that young people’s lives weren’t all that great before the pandemic hit.

According to the Good Childhood Report published by The Children’s Society in 2020, in the past decade British children and young people’s happiness and sense of wellbeing has significantly decreased[2]. UK children are now ranked the lowest in Europe for ‘life satisfaction’ and UK children aged 15 rank the lowest of all those surveyed for having a ‘sense of purpose in life’[3]. What we have then, is a situation where underlying poor mental health has been exacerbated by an acute global health crisis. The UK government is committed to ‘Building Back Better’ but what might this mean for the UK’s children and young people in terms of their wellbeing?

In this blog I’ll explore the ways that poetry – writing it, reading it and learning it – might help to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on young people. In order to do this, I’ll explain how we might productively frame children’s experiences over the past year through the idea of trauma. I’ll outline trauma as a set of processes that happen in the bodies and brains of humans when we are exposed to significant stressors. Poetry, I’ll suggest, can help to alleviate the symptoms of this traumatic stress, encouraging psychological healing and an improved sense of wellbeing.

Trauma: what is it?

Psychological trauma is a set of neurological processes that take place when humans are exposed to overwhelming stress. Every day human beings take in massive amounts of sensory data that our brains process into schemes of knowledge, understanding and prediction. Different parts of the brain are involved in this process but they can roughly be split into two groups: the limbic brain (which is evolutionary older, unconscious and interested in our survival and emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (which is evolutionary younger, conscious and makes rational interpretations). In stressful situations, these two parts of the brain operate as what psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk calls ‘the smoke detector’ and ‘the watch tower’[4]. When we’re exposed to stress our limbic brains go off like a smoke alarm, causing our bodies to secrete stress hormones. Our hearts race, our palms get sweaty and our breathing increases getting us ready for ‘fight or flight’. The prefrontal cortex, however, is the part of our brain that allows us to ‘hover over’ our ‘feelings and emotions’ allowing us to decide if we really are in danger: is that a tiger lurking in my peripheral vision or is it just a bush that looks like a tiger? The super-speedy limbic brain will make you gasp and your stomach drop almost instantaneously when you perceive a threat while the slower rational brain will talk you down from that state of fear as you appraise the situation and realise that you’re safe.

Traumatisation happens when our ‘smoke detector’ and ‘watchtower’ are thrown out of balance. When we face life-threatening and terrible events, our conscious brain is confounded and unable to tell the limbic brain to switch off. We stay in ‘fight or flight’ mode, our bodies surging with powerful stress hormones. Our ability to integrate events into autobiographical and narrative memory becomes inhibited, our experience of linear time can become unreliable and experiences register as disconnected sensory impressions. We can begin to suffer contradictory symptoms that manifest along an erratic timescale. A person might not be able to recall what has happened to them and yet also experiences intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and profound feelings of guilt and shame[5].  We may find ourselves engaging in re-enactments of traumatic events, unable to make positive decisions for ourselves while compulsively engaging in high-risk behaviours. At the less extreme end of the spectrum, we can begin to experience feelings of disconnection, depersonalisation and low mood.

While we associate trauma with catastrophic events, exposure to continuous low-level stress can throw our limbic and conscious brains out of balance resulting in traumatisation through chronic means[6]. For young people in 2020-2021, pre-existing worries about exams, the future, crime, poverty, loneliness and bullying have been exacerbated by the acute crises associated with the pandemic[7]. We have a cohort of students with some of the worst mental health in the world. As of 2020 there are 8.9 million children in English schools alone[8]. How can we possibly deliver appropriate mental health and wellbeing services to so many children across a diverse range of educational settings?

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Healing Trauma with Poetry

One key strategy for alleviating the symptoms of trauma is to support people to reclaim and tell their story. When we experience traumatic events, our conscious brains are overwhelmed and unable to process experience into narrative and autobiographical memory. Our experiences are instead coded as ‘traumatic memories’ within non-verbal parts of the brain as emotions, moods and fragmented sense impressions. For Judith Lewis Herman, however, people can be helped to ‘speak of the unspeakable’[9].  Giving narrative shape to traumatic experiences helps to integrate traumatic memories within the wider personality, alleviating many of trauma’s symptoms.

While reclaiming one’s story might help to mitigate the effects of trauma, it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to try and translate the chaotic and fragmented experience of trauma into linear forms of storytelling. In this context poetry can offer an alternative way of expressing  difficult experiences. Poems very rarely come out fully formed, instead they usually begin with a single image, word or line that in turn gives birth to further patterns of images. These images very often work more by association and implication rather than by explicit narration, relying on simile and metaphor to obliquely address their themes and ideas. Using poetry then, we can start to stitch together our story out of the emotions and flashes of sensory data that are available to us. It offers us a mode of expression that is appropriate to the experience of trauma, allowing us to approach difficult experiences in oblique ways.

The creative processes involved in writing a poem can have a positive impact on the trauma-damaged limbic system (our emotional ‘fire alarm’). Before I ask my students to write a poem, I guide them through a series of breathing and focusing exercises. These exercises help students to calm down, feel safe, connect with their interior world and pay attention to their bodies and emotions. Deliberate and conscious relaxation prepares students for writing but it has an added benefit of telling the limbic system it’s safe to switch off. During the writing process itself, I encourage students to come back to this place of mindful calm as, when trying to write a poem, it is very often a question of relaxing in order to find the next word or phrase rather than trying to consciously force it to come.

Composing a poem can also help to re-engage the imaginative faculties that are impaired by an out-of-control limbic system. In my classroom, I often ask students to create a mental picture of whatever they are writing about by focusing on how the ‘object’ or ‘scene’ looks, feels, tastes, smells and sounds in their mind’s eye. This activity helps to increase blood flow and cognitive activity in the parts of the brain responsible for imagination, re-activating and strengthening the creative faculties. This imaginative capability can then be used to help students imagine better futures for themselves and their communities, an ability that is again often impaired in traumatised brains. Finally, moving the body, including shaking the arms, standing up and even going for walks, are also key poem-writing strategies for loosening up conscious control and surrendering to unconscious wisdom. Movement and body-based therapies are playing an ever-more important role in our treatment of trauma as moving the body helps to activate and heal the non-verbal parts of the brain where trauma can be stored[10].

In addition to writing poems, reading poetry can have enormous benefits for the traumatised brain. When we engage in silent reading, the human brain projects its sense of self into the text. We ‘read ourselves into literature’ and this can help people to connect with their own experiences by empathising with the experiences of others[11]. When we read a poem about emotions that echo our own, for example, we often experience feelings of recognition and validation. Poetry not only offers us a way to feel our own feelings but does so by exercising our empathetic abilities which, once again, can be particularly damaged by trauma. For Sue Gerhardt, reactivating empathy is key to any therapeutic relationship, allowing individuals to reactivate the ability ‘to be heard and to listen, to listen and to be heard’[12]. The page becomes a place where individuals can discover their experiences by empathising with others, reclaiming their emotions within an interpersonal context that can move at a comfortable pace of their own choosing.

Learning poetry by heart also offers potential avenues for improving our sense of wellbeing. Although no research has been conducted into how memorising and reciting poems impacts on mental health per se, research has been conducted into how learning poems by heart impacts on the brain. In ‘By Heart: an fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose’, Adam Zeman and his team used magnetic resonance imaging to identify the parts of the brain stimulated by different kinds of reading. Self-selected passages of poetry known ‘by heart’  activated areas of the brain associated with ‘internal mentation including autobiographical memory, envisioning the future […] theory of mind, and moral decision making’[13]. These are all areas of cognitive activity that are negatively affected by traumatic experiences. While it is yet to be formally studied, there is much potential for exploring how learning poetry can help to bolster the parts of the brain damaged by trauma and to alleviate its symptoms.

Conclusions

In 2020-2021, the underlying stresses faced by children and young people in the UK have been exacerbated by the acute crisis of a global pandemic. Traumatisation, an imbalance of the limbic and conscious areas of the brain caused by extraordinary and/or sustained stress, has serious consequences for learners. To mitigate its effects, poetry offers one way to support young people. In my classroom, I’ve certainly seen the benefits poetry’s non-linear forms, mindful methods and activation of empathy and imagination can give to young people. One caveat, however, is that poetry of course can’t solve everything. While creative and poetry-based interventions can be extraordinarily helpful, they cannot be a replacement for the professional psychiatric care that some children will require to come to terms with their trauma. That said, as the oldest literary art form, poetry has been used for centuries to help humans understand ourselves and our world. Writing, reading and learning poetry might just offer us one way to support children and young people to process what they’ve been through over the past year. Doing so might be one way to meaningfully and authentically begin to ‘Build Back Better’, addressing the damage done to young people by the pandemic and the underlying stresses that impact on their lives.

Dr Mariah Whelan is the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College, Cambridge. Her first collection the love i do to you was published in 2019 and won the AM Heath Prize. She is a Fellow in Creative Practice at University College London where her interdisciplinary research project ‘Poetry: an Art Practice Predicated on the Unknowable’ explores the relationship between poetry and knowledge. 

[1] Vizard, Tim et al. (2020) ‘Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020’ The Health and Social Care Information Centre (NHS Digital) <https://files.digital.nhs.uk/AF/AECD6B/mhcyp_2020_rep_v2.pdf>
[2] ‘The Good Childhood Report 2020’ The Children’s Society, p. 23. <https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-11/Good-Childhood-Report-2020.pdf>
[3] ‘The Good Childhood Report 2020’ The Children’s Society, p. 37.
[4] Van der Kolk, Bessel (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Body and Brain in the Transformation of Trauma, p. 61.
[5] Caruth, Cathy (1995) Trauma: Explorations in Memory, p. 4.
[6] Ruth Leys (2000) Trauma: A Genealogy, p. 6.
[7] Morris, Judy. (2021) ‘Mental Health and Poetry: These are Passing Clounds’, n.p.
[8] (2020) ‘Academic Year 2019/2020: Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics’, n.p. <https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-pupils-and-their-characteristics>
[9] Judith Lewis Herman (2015) Trauma and Recovery, p. 179.
[10] Shoshana Ringell (2012) Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Theory, Practice and Research, p. 7.
[11] Judy Morris (2021) ‘Mental Health and Poetry: These are Passing Clounds’, n.p.
[12] Gerhardt, Sue (2015) Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, p. 205.
[13] Adam Zeman et al. (2013) ‘By Heart: An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose’, p. 150.

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Female poets of the First World War

16th February 2021

We asked Lucy London, poet and writer of the blog Female Poets of the First World War which female war poets she would most like to see represented in schemes of work for First World War poetry.  Lucy includes some poets and poems that are already in the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase but she also gives us some intriguing new poets and poems to investigate. Which would you add? 

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Wounded Australian soldiers treated by female nurses in a British hospital, circa. 1916. Public domain.

 

I think it a shame to study so few of the women poets of the First World War, as it does not give a true picture of the involvement of women in the conflict. Until I began researching this for an exhibition in 2012, I had no idea of the extent to which women were involved in the war. It is also important to remember that the First World War came at a time when in many countries, women were campaigning for the right to vote. I also wanted to demonstrate the global impact of the First World War – the first war that affected nearly every country in the world in some way – and tried to find poets from as many countries as possible. As I researched, I discovered quite a few women poets who served in some capacity – as nurses, drivers and so on – and I am still finding them. The list so far is on my blog Female Poets of the First World War.

Of the First World War female poets represented in school anthologies and schemes of work, three tend to appear more frequently. Jessie Pope volunteered to work at St. Dunstan’s Home for soldiers blinded in the war (the charity is now called Blind Veterans UK), which was opened in 1915, Margaret Postgate Cole was a pacifist and I don’t know what Katharine Tynan did, though her sons fought in the British Army. There were, however, other female poets who were far more closely involved in the First World War. Among my favourites are:

May Sinclair
British poet May Sinclair helped Dr Hector Monro to fund and set up his Flying Ambulance Corps. As Dr. Monro’s Personal Assistant May, by then 52, travelled to Belgium in September 1914. After six hectic weeks, she returned home suffering from shell shock. May, a famous writer back then, wrote about her experiences in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, published in New York by Macmillan in 1915, and she continued to raise funds for the war effort. You can read May Sinclair’s poem ‘Field Ambulance in Retreat’ in the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase.

Rosaleen Graves
British poet and musician Rosaleen Graves was the sister of the more famous male poet Robert Graves. She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment on 17th September 1915 and, after initial training in Chislehurst and London, was sent to No. 54 General Hospital in Wimereux, France on 23rd November 1917. Rosaleen served in France until 14th March 1919. For a taste of one of her war poems, try ‘A stronger than he shall come upon him…’

Ella Wheeler Wilcox
American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox travelled to the Western Front in 1917 to read poetry to the American Troops – quite an undertaking back then for a woman of 67. The troops were very pleased to see her and really appreciated her performances. Ella wrote poems specially for the troops while she was in France and published them in a volume entitled Hello, Boys! You can read a digital copy of Hello Boys on Project Gutenberg.

Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland
British poet Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, who funded and ran a hospital in France. You can read a digital copy of her memoir Six Weeks at the War on the Internet Archive. Her poems are more difficult to find but you can read ”The Tirailleur’ in Lucy’s blogpost.

Winifred Holtby
British poet Winifred Holtby drove ambulances in France. The more famous female First World War poet, Vera Brittain, wrote a biography of her friend, Testament of Friendship; the story of Winifred Holtby which you can read a digital copy of with a free Internet Archive library account. Her poems are not widely available but you can read ‘Trains in France’ in Lucy’s blogpost.

Mary Borden
American poet Mary Borden set up and funded a medical team and went to France 1915 – 1918. Her memoir, The Forbidden Zone, is in print and also available in its first published form with a free Internet Archive library account. Mary Borden’s long poem ‘Song of the Mud’ is linked to in the Poetry By Heart First World War showcase and we have heard some amazing student recitations of this.

Other favourites include Beatrix Brice MillerMarjorie Kane SmythHenriette Hardenberg and Nadja, the pen-name of Louisa Nadia Green, but there were a great many more and even now, over two years after the centenary of the Armistice of the First World War, I continue to find others and people send me information about hitherto undiscovered poets. I also have many on my list still to research and as my research continues I try to add them to my blog, hoping they will reach a wider audience.


 

Lucy London is a poet and writer. Since 2012 she has been researching for a series of commemorative exhibitions, beginning with Female Poets then adding Inspirational Women, Fascinating Facts, Forgotten (male) Poets and, more recently, Artists of the First World War. Exhibitions have been held in a wide variety of places. Panels are sent free of charge via e-mail to anyone wishing to host an exhibition for display as they wish. Each of the sections has a blog and Facebook page:

Fascinating Facts of The Great War
Inspirational Women Of World War One
Female Poets of The First World War
Forgotten Poets of the First World War
Lesser Known Artists Of World War One
The Fascinating World of Marchesa Nadja Malacrida
Great War Graves Centenary Project

Also on Facebook:
Inspirational Women of World War One
Female Poets of the First World War
Forgotten Poets of the First World War
Fascinating Facts of the Great War
Artists of the First World War

You can also find and follow Lucy on Twitter

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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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Voyages in Verse – editing She Will Soar

30th September 2020

Following on from her first volume, She Is Fierce, Anthologist Ana Sampson has produced a second anthology of work solely written by women – She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems of Freedom by Women. We’re digging into it as we focused hard on including more lost, forgotten and neglected women poets in the revised Poetry By Heart digital anthologies launched today and we want to see who we’ve missed! We’re also loving the focus on freedom and escape.

In this week’s blogpost, Ana discusses the process of creating and editing the anthology and shares some of the joys and occasional agonies that she encountered along the way. We reckon her postperson should meet our postperson…

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She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems of Freedom by Women is the second anthology I have edited that gathers work by women from the ancient world to the present day. The previous volume – She is Fierce – had been a general collection, designed to be both broad and friendly, and with no particular thematic focus. She Will Soar concentrates on poems about wanderlust, freedom and escape – all subjects that have preoccupied female writers, who have always operated under more constraints than their male counterparts. And, of course, the verses I gathered took on an extra resonance during the strange, locked-down months of spring 2020.

It starts – of course – with reading.

There were poems I already knew and wanted to include. To add to these, I plundered my own shelves and those in libraries, from the small but much-loved library in my home village to the British Library and brilliant National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre (although they are sadly closed at present, they have some wonderful poetry available to browse online.) I bought second hand books, gratefully accepted bags of delights from my editor, devoured poetry publications and spent hours online (Twitter is a particularly good source of interesting new work, I’ve found.) I lapped up recommendations wherever they were offered.

As the kitchen table and living room floor disappeared under the stacks of paper and books, and my apologetic intimacy with the postman deepened, I began to construct a longlist. I’m enormously grateful for technological advances that allowed me to avoid carrying a houseful of books to the nearest photocopier. An app called Tiny Scanner turns pages into printable PDFs when you photograph them on your phone. I turned my houseful of post-it noted books into towering stacks of paper, and closeted myself with them.

I always find the process of whittling down a longlist for an anthology completely agonising. It was important to me to include voices from different eras, points of view and places, so that each reader would find something that struck a chord with them, and so the anthology would have a varied music to it. So when I had two poems that expressed similar feelings, or were very like one another in tone and style, I tried to lose one of them to keep the reading experience broad and interesting. She Will Soar includes, as a result, poems from today’s spoken word superstars (Kae Tempest, Sophia Thakur), canonical big hitters (Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning), forgotten pioneers (Charlotte Forten Grimké, Edith Södergran), suffragettes (Emily Wilding Davison, Charlotte Perkins Gilman), talented students (Ellie Steel, Lauren Hollingsworth-Smith), eighteenth century Bluestockings (Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), a scandalous Victorian celebrity (L.E.L.), a ninth century courtesan-nun (Yü Hsüan-Chi) and a few national Laureates (Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, Jackie Kay) among many others. It’s fascinating to find the same themes addressed in far flung places and distant eras by women leading such dramatically different lives.

Since the anthology took freedom, travel and escape as its theme, some chapters suggested themselves readily. There were poems about journeys over land and by sea that travelled happily together. A chapter gathering poems in which birds and beasts appeared as emblems of freedom was eventually dropped, with my favourites from that section flying elsewhere in the volume to roost. I had also originally planned a chapter which looked at some of the ties that bound writers – constraints of society, gender and even dress – which became, as my wise editor pointed out, rather heavy reading. Some of these poems were cut and others placed elsewhere.

Once the whittling had been done, and the poems were divided into thematic chapters including ‘Words can set you free’, ‘Flights of fancy’ and ‘Taking flight’, I closeted myself with print outs of each chapter. I read the poems – silently and out loud, as I hope readers will do – and shuffled the order until it felt… right. I aim for variety but also a sense of flow even though I think anthologies are as often dipped into as read in sequence.

My final task was to write the chapter openings. In these and the book’s introduction I tried very briefly to say something about the particular circumstances of female writers: how limited their social, political, literary, economic and educational freedoms had been through many of the centuries covered. I researched and wrote brief biographies of each of them, and found some of the stories of women from earlier eras immensely moving. Many defied disapproving husbands and fathers, dismissive editors, enormous families, vicious critics or society’s censure. Some faced mental or physical illness, and even fled repressive regimes. At times it was considered so disgraceful for women to publish, they wrote under male names, as the Brontës and George Eliot did. We will never know how many more didn’t feel they could write, or wrote and didn’t publish. But these women wrote. Lots of them have fallen out of fashion, some of them were ignored or didn’t dare publish during their lifetimes. Now, though, I hope they will be read alongside some of the most talented and inspired writers of today.

She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems of Freedom by Women is out now. You can find Ana talking (mostly) about poetry and books on Twitter and Instagram, and sign up for her newsletter here.

 

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Close encounters with poetry

16th July 2020

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

@poetrycandle

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Poems Need to be Read Aloud

6th May 2020

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

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


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Joseph Coelho

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Karen Lockney

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

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

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

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

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

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Some observations from a Year 7 pupil:

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


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

 

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

 

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

13th February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Power of Poetry For People With Dementia

2nd December 2015

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Image courtesy of Feggy Art Creative Commons

I am a firm believer that the arts play an important part in all our lives. We might not be conscious of it, but whether we take our pleasure from curling up with a good book; watching a spellbinding performance on stage or our televisions; or losing ourselves in the creation of our own masterpieces, the arts can leave a significant impression on us all. At Alzheimer’s Society we champion the arts as a way for people with dementia and carers to express themselves. We believe everyone has the right to participate in the arts, and for people with dementia, we know that there are many benefits. It can improve quality of life and well-being by stimulating emotions and creativity.

Organisations like The Reader champion shared reading groups which they believe improve quality of life through cognitive stimulation, social interaction and meaningful engagement each week. From Betjeman and Blake to Wordsworth and Yeats, there is also some evidence that reading poetry could have therapeutic benefits for people with dementia and a number of poets have explored dementia in their work. Gillian Clarke’s famous poem about conducting a poetry reading in a hospital captures the moment when a man who has not spoken for many years suddenly recites Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’:

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

(Gillian Clarke Collected Poems Carcanet 1997)

For those interested in this subject it is worth noting that The National Association of Writers in Education produced a volume of their journal devoted to ‘Writing and Dementia’. (Volume 61 www.nawe.co.uk )

Many of my colleagues are lucky enough to witness the power of poetry first-hand. Reciting the rhymes and rhythms, metre and cadence of a good poem can bring great pleasure as Pam Ollis, Alzheimer’s Society’s Social Events Coordinator knows only too well. At an Alzheimer’s Society Memory Café several poetry sessions have taken place, one featuring a local poet who read her own poems and encouraged others to read theirs as well.

Pam said: “The sessions went down really well and a stand out moment for me was seeing a lovely lady who has been living with Alzheimer’s disease for five years, read out ‘Jerusalem’ when she had never uttered more than a few words in the entire year of knowing her. She really came to life and it was fabulous to see the power of poetry.

“A carer also read out a poem ‘My love is like a red red rose’ to his wife who has dementia and the whole room was moved to tears.”

Most people with dementia remember the distant past more clearly than recent events. This is because memories tend to decline in reverse order to when they were experienced. People will often have difficulty remembering what happened a few minutes or hours ago, but can recall, in detail, life when they were much younger.

For that reason, poetry can be a useful tool for reminiscence activities; a poem has the potential to unlock memories and emotions. Perhaps there was a poem that someone will remember because their parents or grandparents read it to them when they were a child, or a poem that was used in English lessons at school. Maybe there were poems written by husbands or wives in the early days of a budding romance.

It is worth acknowledging that a poem may not always elicit fond memories, a particular subject may cause someone to recall unhappy times. Or it could be that for some people with dementia poetry and English lessons are not the things to get hearts racing. But that said, the power of both the arts, and poetry in particular, certainly strikes a chord with many of us and a project like Poetry By Heart has every chance of encouraging creative engagement with poetry in the classroom and beyond.

‘Your story’ is a place on Alzheimer’s Society’s website for people to share their experiences of living with dementia. Stories can be submitted by anyone who has been affected by dementia, including people with dementia, carers and relatives. Visit www.alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory to find out more.

It seems fitting to sign off this blog with some poetry. This verse from a 16 line poem was shared with me by a colleague on behalf of 78 year-old Pat McCarthy. Pat is living with dementia. She is very creative and enjoys painting as well as putting pen to paper and writing her own poetry.

AUTUMN

Autumn is a lovely time, with leaves all brown and yellow.

It’s like the autumn of my life when I began to mellow.

When I was young I had no time to sit and look around

But, now I’m getting older all these pleasures I have found.

There now seems to be a growing body of evidence that the structure and patterns of poetry and the reminiscences of poetry can be beneficial for some people with dementia as they engage with, in Clarke’s words, ‘the music of speech’.

JAbout the Author: Jenna Hopkinson is the media officer for Alzheimer’s Society covering the South West of England. She has an interest in communication and has a BA in English Language and Communication from Cardiff University. Alzheimer’s Society encourages people to share their experience of living with dementia by submitting poetry or stories to the ‘Your Story’ page on their website.

Visit alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory for further details.

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‘A Momentary Stay Against Confusion’

7th October 2015

Rachel Kelly reflects on how the therapeutic power of remembered poetry helped her through serious depressive illness.

 

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Shortly before his death, the seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert sent the collection of prayers and poems he had written privately throughout his life to a friend. He requested that his friend only publish them if he believed they could ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected soul’ and would be ‘of use’.

 

Fortunately for us, his friend opted for publication, and Herbert’s poems have been a source of comfort and enjoyment ever since. Herbert’s idea that poetry should be of use is central to my own love of poetry and informs my working life: after many years as a journalist, including a decade at The Times, I now run poetry workshops for mental health charities including Depression Alliance, Mind, and Cooltan Arts as well as for bookshops such as The Idler Academy in West London and Alain de Botton’s The School of Life.

Poetry first provided solace for me when I was struck down with severe depression nearly twenty years ago. It was then that my mother – my constant nurse and companion – would sit by my bedside and repeat a line from Corinthians (the Bible being naturally rich with poetry): ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness.’

These thirteen words were at the heart of my recovery as they helped reverse my feelings of despair. I would become stronger because of the ordeal. I often think of depression as like a trapdoor opening inside me, and so I would repeat the words my mother gave me endlessly, mantra-like, when I felt in danger of falling through.

Since that first depressive episode I have continued to battle with depression, but thanks to drugs, therapy and above all poetry, I am keeping my ‘Black Dog’ on a tight leash. When I was very unwell, I could only absorb the odd line, which I would focus all my attention on, stilling the anxious chatter in my head. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’, famously quoted by Winston Churchill in his wartime speeches.

In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright’. 

Another favourite is almost any line from Emily Dickinson’s ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ in which the poet compares hope to a bird. Hope is ever-present, even if it’s small and in your peripheral vision.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all –’

I began to discover that I was not alone in finding poetry helpful in dark times. The healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about the power of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.

I began to put my own belief that poetry can help those facing adversity into practice, initially as a cottage industry. I swapped poems with friends and became a volunteer at our local prison’s education department where I ran poetry workshops. For me, one of the ways poetry helps most is by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take Herbert, for example. His poem ‘Love’ begins:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin’.

The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ describes exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty. What a perfect capturing! Herbert also offers a compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. He knew how to perfectly balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation. http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/love-iii/

A powerful poetic line can diminish the sense of being alone. This was particularly striking to me when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which describe a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. Poetry also brings one’s mind into the present moment and back into ‘the flow’ of life. Mental illnesses such as depression tend to cripple our sense of time: involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past. But the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate on the here and now.

Robert Frost put it best when he said that a poem can offer a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, which is what happened to me all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and recited those words to me. Now I know those lines by heart and many more besides: a golden store to be used as and when. I find learning a poem especially helpful when I’m awake in the small hours. There’s something hugely comforting in the mind’s secure possession of a literary work.

In my new book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, I record a diary of my year and the week-by-week strategies that have helped to keep me calm and happy and manage my depression: from the philosophies I try to practise, to spring cleaning, to new ways of communicating, breathing exercises and more.  These strategies have all proved invaluable to me, but one of my favourite things about the book is the poems I have included at the beginning of each season. I think poetry will forever be at the heart of each new chapter.

 

Rachel Kelly Colour High Res About the author

In her memoir Black Rainbow, bestselling author and former Times journalist Rachel Kelly tells the story of how poetry was at the heart of her recovery from two depressive episodes. Now she campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, speaking at schools, universities and literary festivals on the healing power of words. She also runs poetry workshops at her local prison and at mental health charities. Rachel is an ambassador for UK charity SANE and Vice President of United Response. Her new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness will be published by Short Books in November 2015. For more info on Rachel and her work please visit www.rachel-kelly.net.

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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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First Lines

31st March 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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