Poetry By Heart Blog

Voices Together

28th May 2021

In the Large Group Celebration category of Poetry By Heart, a group of more than six students, perhaps even a whole class, performs a poem by speaking it collaboratively. We want to re-vivify the art of choral speaking in creative, inclusive and exciting ways. We’re armed with little more than a 19th century teachers manual that includes how to dress in togas while speaking chorally, some really imaginative entries in this year’s competition and some cool examples from collaborative slam poetry. To help us think about it, Marie McHugh shares her experience of working in this way and guides us through some approaches to a particular poem her classes have loved performing. If you have experiences of choral poetry speaking to share, we’d love to hear more!

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to imbue them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Maya Angelou, poet and author

Ensemble delivery of a poem using various voice combinations, solos, and a range of imaginative contrasts to explore meaning, tonal beauty and the particular significance of the words, can be an entertaining and exciting experience for everyone involved. Poetry out loud helps master public speaking skills, builds self-confidence and develops sensitivity to the effects of sound and meaning. This enhances the growth of a rich personal vocabulary, promoting diversity in delivery and empathy in understanding, whilst providing great fun. The classroom atmosphere that manifests learning and fun simultaneously is one to be nurtured.

Collaborative speaking and learning by heart can foster myriad contributions, one way or another, across the ability spectrum. It embraces the joy of whole group involvement: by its very nature choral verse is inclusive. Every student can contribute to a unique interpretation of old favourites or new discoveries and there are opportunities for everyone to get actively involved in the delivery of the poem. Always a few nascent thespians will desire the limelight and want to deliver specific lines singularly or in a small group, while others will be perfectly happy to work in unison with a bigger group.

Those not so keen to court the limelight will be able to blend within the group, much as singers in a choir, who are emboldened by consequence of numbers. Theirs is as crucial a contribution as those not born to blush unseen. Star players and star backgrounders are mutually dependent. No student needs to be put on the spot or stand out in a group and there is a perfect opportunity to employ the diverse individual skills and talents within a group. For example, appropriate music might enhance choral delivery and there may be players available, or those with sufficient musical savvy will have pleasure in the search for something singularly apt.

Whole group performance of a poem can be thrilling for both performers and audience. I have found this to be true across the age and ability ranges. A transformation happens when the poem becomes a unique interpretation reflecting the specific talents of the group, as well as contemporary or pertinent issues. Everyone interested will develop their own methods, but ideas that follow may add an initial confidence if there is little or no experience in organising a whole group presentation of a poem.

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Choosing the text with some advice on modus operandi
There are a number of suitable poems in the Poetry by Heart anthologies or there may be some that spring to mind that you have a hunch the group might like. Provide a copy of a number of poems for each student as well as displaying to the group on an overhead screen. Encourage individuals or small groups to improvise by reading aloud particular lines and verses to explore what they like. I can rarely stop myself from joining in, too. This can be very entertaining and students are immediately involved. Having considered several potential choices, possibly over a couple of meetings, decisions will be made by the majority with teacher guidance. Of course, a teacher may decide to choose a poem in advance and present the choice as made. Knowing the group well enables a judicious choice.

Many poems can lend themselves to choral performance but here are some of my suggestions, suitable for children of different ages, listed in no particular order. Those with an asterisk feature in one of the Poetry By Heart timeline anthologies:

The Shooting of Dan McGrew – Robert Service
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge*
The Daniel Jazz – Nicholas Vachel Lindsay
The Lady of Shallott – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sohrab and Rustum – Matthew Arnold
Among School Children – W B Yeats
Cataract of Lodore – Robert Southey*
The Highwayman – Alfred Noyes
Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll*
The Destruction of Sennacherib – George Gordon Byron*
Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge*
The Dong with a Luminous Nose – Edward Lear
My Last Duchess – Robert Browning*
The Pied Piper – Robert Browning
The Cremation of Sam McGee – Robert Service
Mandalay – Rudyard Kipling
If – Rudyard Kipling*
The Song of Hiawatha – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow*
The Hill We Climb – Amanda Gorman
Josephine Baker Finds Herself – Patience Agbabi*
What If – Benjamin Zephaniah*
The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock – T S Eliot

Beginning the work and seeking below the surface for meaning 
Discuss content and meaning, bearing in mind that a deeper understanding of the words will lend distinction and quality to the choral interpretation. Give some small group time so that students can practise different ways of delivering specific lines or verses, within each sub-group and then to the whole group. Consider the structure or form and invite comments on how the poem works and how best it might be delivered. The whole group reads the poem aloud after which reactions and opinions about delivery can be shared with more examples. Ideas will develop in quality through rehearsal. Try out different voice combinations and contrasts to elucidate the meaning and facilitate tonal beauty as well as the appreciation and significance of the words.

Example: Characters and consideration of some textual features in Robert Service’s, ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’

Discuss with students the various characters in the poem and how they might be interpreted in relation to what happens. Small group feedback to the whole group should elucidate certain subtle inferences in relation to characters and their actions. Consider the poet’s use of dramatic irony and any features geared to persuade and influence the reader to judge particular characters, or create atmosphere and opinion.

Here are some examples of language the poet uses to set the scene.

‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon.’

This line evokes the rowdy, yet apparently jocular ambience of the saloon named after the sled-pulling, hugely strong dog, employed in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. Is the Malamute Saloon a place of camaraderie as well as refuge from “out of the night which was 50 below”? Does the phrase “into the din and the glare” introduce an uneasy more contentious mood? How might this rowdy, “whooping it up” atmosphere punctuated by the “stumbling miner” be reflected by the students in performance and a change in the music?

‘The kid that handles the music box was hitting a jag-time tune.’

Think about the difference in the poet’s use of “jag-time” to refer to “rag-time” and try to explain it. Use YouTube to listen to some rag-time music.

‘Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.’

What effect does the alliteration give to McGrew’s name? Is there any significance in where he is sitting and what he is doing? Note the further alliteration where several points are made about Lou. What are they? Look hard at the last line of the final verse and think about poetic effects in relation to the way Lou is described. What purpose is served by the use of hyphens?

‘There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,’

This emotive description of McGrew’s nemesis, a gold prospector seeking retribution, portrays him as a desperate, yet vulnerable character, and acts as a precursor or harbinger of something sinister in the offing. Consider the line, “With a face most hair and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done”… comment on persuasive techniques and any other devices you have noted in this verse or elsewhere in the poem that you find interesting. As distinct from the kid, the miner has a tremendous ability to play the piano and as such his past is imbued with mystery and speculation. Why might the poet desire to infer this?

The narrator/onlooker has a crucial role, yet he remains nameless. Why? How does the poet establish his credibility? How might his voice sound? Students might like to give an example of the voice. Imagine a particular accent and a way of delivery. Is he confident? Should he sound credible?

Further textual considerations
Beginning with the word “shooting” in the title, make a list of all words in the poem ending in ‘ing’. Comment on any apparent significance. The use of the present continuous tense lends a timeless quality to perennial issues of the human condition, like love, greed and violence. Any other ideas you might mention?

There are several uses of hyphens, dashes, ellipses … and one pair of brackets. What function do they serve? They allow the reader space for thought, give room for inference, as well as instruct the delivery of the lines. Consider what specific ideas might be inferred in several such pauses in the poem. The poet does not tell us all the details from the mouth of the narrator. He wants us to speculate.

Note the ethereal atmosphere evoked by the universal imagery in verse 5 and the significant change in the sound of the music beautifully played, and reflect on the impact of the last six words. Consider the difference in imagery in verse 6. Note the juxtaposition of the last two lines and the significant use of brackets. What is inferred about the lady that’s known as Lou in the last line of the verse?

What effect does the music have in verse 7 when it suddenly changes? How might Dan McGrew’s line: “I guess I’ll make it a spread misere” be delivered? What does he mean by these words? Should it have a contradictory, casual delivery or a villainous one?

Wider issues
Discuss atmosphere engendered by the description of the Yukon, referred to as the ‘Great Alone’. Consider further the significance of the imagery in verses 5 and 6. Hunger is not just of the ‘belly kind’ but consider the reference to loneliness and homelessness. Encourage students to think about the area’s geography and history, including the extreme cold and the Gold Rush. How should a choral presentation include significant music to complement the themes? What sounds, other than those of the music, help to create atmosphere? Could someone mimic the howl of a timber wolf, for example? Insights gained here will inform and shape the delivery of the poem, helping students to make it their own. I find it extremely interesting that the range of talents available within a particular group reinterpret a poem and always find something new to celebrate. Are there any other themes of contemporary resonance worthy of discussion and how may they inform the delivery?

Could this poem be described simply as a revenge story? What is the final outcome? Why does the poet choose not to include the other nameless man’s death in the poem’s title?

Invite everyone in the group to write a sentence making a personal response to this poem.

There is so much more to be discovered in this poem. This is an example of a particular approach, but each teacher will have their own toolkit, interests and ways of working. Enjoy discovering, sharing ideas and reading between the lines.

Simply out of interest
Created by the ancient Greeks, choral poetry was usually accompanied by a musical instrument known as a Lyre, similar to a small harp. There were both men and women in the chorus and the poems were mainly religious in character. The actors were made to seem very tall with built up shoes and facial masks depicting various expressions. There could be as many as 50 chorus members in the ensemble but over time the number reduced to between 12 and 15 actors. Perhaps the logistics of preparing many costumes became too much trouble. The task of the chorus in Greek Theatre was to give the audience a deeper understanding of the characters involved in relation to their thinking and motivation. In time choral sub genres developed from choral drama to include and celebrate a variety of public festivals and family occasions.

Wikipedia provides the following occasions when choral speaking would be used in Greek theatre.

The marriage song (Epithalamium)
The lament or dirge (Threnos)
The praise to a god (Paean)
The maiden song (Partheneion)
The processional (Prosodion)
The hymn (In praise of…)
The dithyramb (In praise of Bacchus)
Praise for people (Encomium)
Song at a party or
Symposium (Skolion)

Where might The Shooting of Dan McGrew fit within these sub genres?

Though much is covered here, much remains to be discovered by you and your students!


 

Marie McHugh was Head of English at Emmanuel College, Gateshead, and a manager of learning and teaching across the curriculum. In the early 1970s, she taught English in Zambia and travelled extensively in Africa. She now writes poetry and prose and has been involved with Poetry by Heart since 2013. Her love of poetry began long ago on first hearing Walter de la Mare’s Nicholas Nye and Rudyard Kipling’s Mandalay. 

 

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

13th May 2021

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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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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Poetry By Foot

18th March 2021

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

4th March 2021

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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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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The Fire Of Joy – Clive James on learning poetry

15th October 2020

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

FOJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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…

She Will Soar Banner

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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Memorising and Performing Poetry in Film

11th June 2020

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

Morgan-Freeman-Invictus-M-010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Poets Society

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

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

The History Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

13th February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The value of the memorised poem

9th December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few reflections in relation to Poetry By Heart –

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

How memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Emily’s Dream – lifting poetry off the page

15th November 2019

FWW blog Varty thin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding a track in the verbal landscape

2nd October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Learning lines – an actor’s perspective

22nd February 2018


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

How do actors learn all those lines?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamsin added:

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

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

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

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Words on your Wall

8th November 2017

Have you got a poem on your wall? Ana Sampson, poetry anthology editor, shares her words on the wall.


When I was fifteen, I had words on my wall. Between the pictures of Kurt Cobain, Withnail and Bagpuss I taped up my favourite poems: Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. (I would have felt it necessary to defend the inclusion of Dylan at the time, but a Nobel Prize for Literature is a good passport to the pantheon of poets in anyone’s book.) ‘Fern Hill’ is all beauty, a hymn of pleasure tinged with the delicious ache of a nostalgia I was too young to really understand. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’’s lines about dancing beneath the diamond sky chimed with all the yearning for hedonistic beach parties a landlocked British teenager could muster (a lot). But why Wilfred?

I studied the First World War in class, like generations of school children since that cataclysm. We traced the underlying causes – the webs of European alliances, the scramble for arms, the rallying drumbeat of nationalism – and the fate of Franz Ferdinand. We learnt about the battles, the tactics and the casualties. But it wasn’t until we began to read war poetry that the terrors endured by the men – boys, really, most of them – came alive for me.

The Great War encouraged thousands to put pen to paper, producing plays and novels as well as poetry. Ordinary people turned to writing to process their experiences, and a generation of ‘trench poets’ sprang up almost overnight. In 1916 a canny London publisher printed an anthology called Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men – with a portable lightweight edition for the boys at the Front – and a second volume followed in 1918. Rupert Brooke’s patriotic war poetry and tragic death – from a mosquito bite, rather than in action – set the tone and his 1914 and Other Poems became a runaway bestseller. The disenchanted work of poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Owen found few fans at the time.

After the Armistice in November 1918 most of the war poets stopped writing – nobody wanted to mention the war – and only Brooke continued to sell in any numbers, bringing comfort to a grieving nation. However, at the end of the 1920s controversial memoirs of life in the trenches including Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front began to appear. These books ate away at any remaining illusions about the conflict. The writers whose patriotism turned to horrified disgust in the face of that war’s horrors are the ones whose words touch us most deeply now.

‘Strange Meeting’ is a work of hallucinatory horror. The epic language – vain citadels, blood-clogged chariot wheels, the swiftness of the tigress – evokes the colossal scale of the tragedy. Owen forces the reader to contemplate the squandered value of every one of the millions of lives lost, on both sides. Owen met Sassoon while recovering from shell shock in Scotland – ‘Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were’. Both men longed to close the vast gap of understanding between the troops at the Front and those left behind in Blighty, and ‘Strange Meeting’ is part of that quest. It is an enormous poem, straining with emotion, but written with extraordinary control. The unsettling half-rhymes (swiftness/tigress) and pararhymes (hall/Hell; groined/groaned) are designed to disturb. The time was out of joint; easy rhyme and gentle rhythm would be a betrayal of Owen’s message. The poem is a howl – though it isn’t without beauty: ‘hunting wild’ was a phrase I liked so much, I remember doodling it on my exercise books.

I have edited five anthologies and, each time, I look for poetry that particularly moves me to include. The latest is called Best-Loved Poems, so I was on a mission to gather well-known, familiar verses that readers would remember their own first encounters with, rather than uncover more obscure gems. There are other poems by Owen that are perhaps better known – ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ among them – but this was the one that had spoken so clearly to me I never forgot it. The experience of a sheltered suburban schoolgirl was light years away from the troops mired in mud on the Western Front but, like all great poetry, it seemed to take me there. Poetry is personal. It has been a privilege and a joy to edit volumes of it, and I can heartily recommend compiling your own anthology of favourites – physically and, if you can, in memory.

Reading brings so many rewards. It can parachute us into other lives, and whisk us off to exotic – or even imaginary – places. It can arouse powerful emotions and readers develop empathy through experiencing, second-hand, what the writer has endured or enjoyed. Poetry, with its inventive use of language, feels even more intimate than prose. Committing poems to heart helps us to absorb this nourishment even more fully, as we add the poet’s words to our mental furniture. In a world in which there is still so much war, ‘Strange Meeting’ is as essential to the canon as it was a hundred years ago. I no longer have a copy pinned to my wall . . . because I carry it in my memory.

Ana Sampson has edited five anthologies of poetry including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. . . and Other Poems you Half-Remember from School – the number three poetry bestseller of 2009 – and Poems to Learn by Heart. Her latest, Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse, has just been published by Michael O’Mara Books. Ana works as a freelance publicist and copywriter. She is delighted that her eldest daughter is now old enough to quote sections of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’, and that the youngest already shrieks when a verse in Room on the Broom gets skipped. She tweets as @Anabooks.

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Poems, Pictures and Prophecy

14th March 2016

Blake

(America a Prophecy 1793 Copy E Library of Congress electronic edition)

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

Chris McCabe’s blog “Poetry Comics” prompted me to write something about William Blake’s prophetic book “America”, in particular, the verses on the illuminated page above.

I can’t remember when I first came upon the poetry of William Blake. It may have been as early as primary school with some of the lyrics from “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. I seem to have a very early memory of ‘The Tyger and’ of ‘The Chimney Sweep’. Whenever it was, it was the beginning of a bit of an obsession with the man and his works. I’m not alone, of course. It seems that when people want to reference ideas of the “other”, the mystical, wild and strange they reach for Blake. The extraordinary deconstructed Western “Dead Man” being a relatively recent example.

I have chosen the text above because it is illustrative of a sort of shock and surprise concerning Blake that I myself experienced way back in the early years of the 1970s. I was studying at the University of Manchester and one of our lecturers advertised a talk on Blake incorporating colour slides from his prophetic books. This was a time before the ready availability of colour reproductions of Blake’s books. At that time I was familiar with just a few pieces of Blake’s art – the illuminated “Songs.” and student posters of “Glad Day”, “Urizen creating the World” but with few other examples. What I saw shocked me. The pictures were not at all like the pretty Georgian gothic pages of Songs of Innocence. True, there were again those neoclassical nude figures flying through the pages, but also there were monsters, aggression, violence and raw, often crude depictions – in fact, it was all somewhat like the pulp comic books of 1950s America. Flying, angry superheroes confronted deconstructed Biblical-looking patriarchs amid flames. There were dancing and swooning maidens, gesturing heroes but also darkness, pulsating brains and planetary globes of blood.

In the picture above we have a relatively tame example of one of Blake’s illuminated pages. Uncoloured versions make his etching techniques even more startlingly evident. Blake took great joy in his artistic methods and he directly linked his physical etching, engraving and printing techniques to intellectual perceptions about the nature of reality and God. I am quite sure that he was just as proud and aware of his stippling and hatching lines and marks in the clouds as Lichtenstein was of his enlarged “Ben-Day” dots in the 1960s. The actual artifice of etching is foregrounded and made evident. The blank paper itself is made into clouds and brightness. In the best of Blake’s work he handles the treatment of the words, images and coiling vegetation within the frame of the page as a unity. Here the page is dominated by a resurrected figure. His physique is brightly lit and stylised with “superman” muscles and a dramatically foreshortened pose. He sits on the road-kill flesh of his own dead body and looks up.

What’s it all about? These verses themselves are from the eighth plate of “America a Prophecy” printed in 1793. Although the poem centres on the colonists’ struggle against the tyranny of Britain, this poem contains very little at all about the real, historical events of the American War of Independence. Instead, some of the characters of the war, Washington, Franklin, Tom Paine, Gates, Hancock and Green and “Albion’s wrathful Prince” are involved in a narrative with Blake’s own mythological figures – Orc, Urizen, Oothoon and Rahab. Like an opera, or like a baroque ceiling painting, figures enact their passions against a background of wonders. Orc – a supernatural figure of violent and terrifying wrathful revolutionary fervour speaks the words on the page above.

What educational use does this excerpt have? It is one of the more quoted sections from Blake’s prophecies. I think that if students were presented only with the text and image above, without any context, the strength and meaning of the words and images would still be enough. Most would recognise the allusions to the Christian Resurrection. The rest of the words are a plain and simple evocation of freedom and the release from suffering – a universal human joy expressed here with simple economy:-

“Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:

Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air:”

…………..

“And let his wife and children return from the opressor’s scourge;

They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.”

Delving a little deeper, we might ask students to consider the versification, the symbolism and simple personification – “the linen”… “the clay” … “the slave” … “The Sun has left his blackness”.. “the fair Moon rejoices”…. “Empire”….“the Lion”…. “the Wolf”… (notice that these don’t get crushed, defeated or slain, they simply “cease”.) We might ask what is a prophecy? Something about the future? Unargued assertion? (“…For everything that lives is holy” …..”All religions are One”) What is the syntax of prophecy? Whose “voice” speaks prophecy – is it the poet or some other? What form do prophetic statements take? Can anyone prophesy?

If the constraints of the syllabus and teaching objectives permit wouldn’t it be great to ask the students to pick a contemporary problem or issue and write their own short prophecy? Illustrate their own street comic verses or graphic novelette? Learn some of Blake’s lines and practise declaiming them? Experience the exaltation of expressing a prophetic vision! Does it have any meaning or value still in our troubled and postmodern age?

 

Phil TAbout the Author: Phil Tomlinson lives in Hastings on the South Coast. He is a retired, former teacher of English and Media Studies and Deputy Head of a secondary school. He now coaches French undergraduates in English language in preparation for examinations to enter the grandes écoles.

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Uniting Pleasure With Truth

29th February 2016

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Cold blows the wind to my true love

And gently drops the rain

I only had but one true love

And in green wood she lies slain. (4)

 

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

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

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

(1)

The Yellow fairy

by Charlotte Druitt Cole

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

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

(2) Samuel Johnson Lives of the Poets 1791

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

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

(5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria

 

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

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

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

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

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Something to set down. The Journey of the Magi

24th January 2016

Adoration of the Magi. Detail from casket made in Limoges currently housed in the Museum of Scotland. Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP Creative Commons

As many of us recently took down Christmas decorations and cards (the PBH team keeps coming across stray bits of tinsel amongst the office files) we may have noticed how often we saw images of the three wise men. In this guest blog Jorj Kowszun takes a closer look at the legend of these mysterious men through a consideration of one of our anthology poems.

 

The three wise men – the Magi, or often the three kings – are an iconic image of Christmas. They are a very common Christmas card theme and often used in Christmas advertising to alert us to the season: usually they are riding camels, often very stylised, occasionally setting gifts down before the baby Jesus.

All there is about these characters is a short passage in Matthew’s gospel Chapter 2: 1-12 that tells us very little – not even how many of them there were. Yet a whole mythology has built up around them. This includes names, ethnicities and countries of origin. If you visit Cologne Cathedral you will even be shown a golden reliquary that is supposed to contain their bones!

The building of the mythology around the Magi is an expression of a natural desire to give flesh to these enigmatic characters. T.S. Eliot approached their story in his poem “The Journey of the Magi” by exploring that journey from the “inside”. You can hear Eliot reading his poem here on the Poetry Archive website: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi

It is a grittier focus on the hardship of the journey. The uncertainty about their purpose in making the journey. The disturbing effect it had on them and on their lives afterwards – leaving them feeling dissatisfied, out of place, longing for something else.  Maybe even wishing they hadn’t done it.

My wife and I are Strictly Come Dancing fans and the pundits on the show talk regularly about the “Strictly journey” which is a very good description. People join the show and some of them stay only a short time and their journey ends abruptly in disappointment. Others find hidden depths of talent in themselves and stay to the very end. Others still find themselves taken out of the journey earlier than is fair because of the fickleness of the voting public and others stay far too long for similar reasons.

It is for all of them an extraordinary journey, taking them outside their normal pattern of life and inviting them to develop new skills, to manage new relationships, to do something totally different.

The Magi – whoever they were – chose to go on this journey. Their friends and family probably thought they were mad, or at least taking part in a wild goose-chase. But they were following a star – this expression has come in to our language now to mean following a dream or an ambition. They believed the journey was worthwhile and would bring them nearer to something special in this world.

Eliot’s poem gives us a reality check. A stern corrective that says it’s not all running about and having fun. Times will be hard. Often you will question the value of your journey and at the end you will have become a different person and will no longer fit comfortably into your original familiar box.

That’s something to set down perhaps.

JorjAbout the AuthorJorj Kowszun is currently in charge of Mathematics at the University of Brighton. He entered the academic world only a few years ago at a relatively late stage in his life. Before that he ran a successful consultancy business for many years, mostly helping managers in education with improving their strategy and finances. He started his business when he was made redundant from the job of deputy principal following a merger of colleges – while dispiriting at the time, it opened up a whole new range of opportunities! Much of Jorj’s working life has involved the education of 16-19-year-olds.

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The Patterns of Poetry

4th January 2016

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

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

– William Cowper

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

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

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

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

Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football-pool,

Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

 

His belly is white, his neck is dark,

And his hair is an exclamation-mark.

His clothes are enough to scare a crow

And through his britches the blue winds blow.

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

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

My modelling begins something like this:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Spell Casting

16th December 2015

Malkin by Camille Ralphs  The Emma Press

Malkin by Camille Ralphs The Emma Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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The Power of Poetry For People With Dementia

2nd December 2015

Daffodil

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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Poetry Comics

24th June 2015

 

Image courtesy of paulktunis.com

Poet Chris McCabe reflects on the popularity of poetry comics and the debt they might owe to William Blake.

 

William Blake appears in The Poetry by Heart timeline for the year 1789 with his poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. This poem is from his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which demonstrated a new way of bringing together poetry and visual art that built on the manner of earlier (often religious) illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. In The Poetry Library’s current exhibition Poetry Comics Blake is featured amongst the poets and artists on show with the implicit question: If Blake were to begin his endeavour today, might we not consider it as a work that falls into the medium of comics?

 

Blake, as both a poet and an artist, was able to fulfil this kind of work himself: etching the words and images into the same copper plate to make one complete experience for the viewer. As far back as the beginning of Chinese ideograms we know that there has been a human wish to combine words and visual images. Poetry Comics shows us how modern artists and poets have explored this idea, combining poetry and sequential art to create new and surprising works.

The Poetry Library has a collection of over 150,000 items in every form and medium imaginable: epics, ballads, sonnets, haiku. There are even poetry balloons, beer-mats and T-shirts. What has been surprising is finding how many poetry comics exist in the library. Dadaist picture poems from the period of the First World War, broadsides from 1950s San Francisco, collaborations between New York poets and artists and small press publications from the 1970s. The greatest surprise has been finding that Poetry Comics is a currently thriving scene and that anyone can get involved in this exciting hybrid art form.

Chrissy Williams, my co-curator on this exhibition, is also a poet who has published a number of publications which combine poetry and sequential art, including The Jam Trap (Soaring Penguin Press, 2012) and Angela (Sidekick Book, 2013). She describes how she first became interested in Poetry Comics like this:

‘I had abandoned comics when I was younger, and it was only in coming back to them as an adult that I started to see the creative possibilities inherent in their structure. The visual language of the panel to panel transitions made me think of the transitions from line to line in poetry – how much is left unsaid, in both, for the reader to complete for themselves. And the line itself – both mediums concern themselves with trying to do more with less, with using the most economic (yet expressive) line possible. It struck me there were useful things both mediums could learn from each other, and the exploration started there.’

Chrissy organises a poetry comics workshop which invites poets and artists to come and make poetry comics together. In the exhibition at The Poetry Library there is a whole display case with loose-leaf pages assembled across each other in layers of cut-up colours and words. There is a real sense of fun and possibility. Pencil, ink and colour invite words to sit both in and outside of the panels. There is an image of a mountain with smoke firing out of it and the words read, above and below: ‘O Fire of love, newly arrived. / How armourless. Fiend of Hell.’

The exhibition also has some suggestions on how poetry comics work and how you might make them yourself. A sentence in bright pink curves around a column in the library: WHAT HAPPENS OFF THE PAGE IS AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT HAPPENS ON IT. Chrissy says:

‘When the line is at its most economic, you might see only a few marks on the page – this allows for even those with the most limited artistic ability (and I count myself among them) to work up ideas. Thinking of it as a collage between poetry and sequential art also means you can use found images to make ideas work. What interests me most about the process is finding new ways to explore the page.’

Perhaps the easiest way to make a start with your own poetry comic is to pick up the little booklet at The Poetry Library which simply says on the cover ‘see what happens…’. Who knows, this could be the start of your own beginnings as a maker of poetry comics? The best thing about this form is that you can work on it alone, with a collaborator, or in groups, and there is no end to the possibilities.

Poetry Comics at The Poetry Library is open Tuesday-Sunday 11-8 until 12th July.
There will be a further exhibition of new poetry comics work at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden from 1st September. This work will be drawn from a forthcoming anthology to be published by Sidekick Books: Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics.

Chris McCabe is the Poetry Librarian at The Poetry Library, Southbank Centre. His poetry collections are The Hutton Inquiry, Zeppelins, THE RESTRUCTURE and Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2015). He has recorded a CD with the Poetry Archive, has had work included in numerous anthologies and was shortlisted for The Ted Hughes Award in 2014 for his collaborative work with Maria Vlotides, Pharmapoetica. His plays Shad Thames, Broken Wharf and Mudflats have been performed in London and Liverpool and his prose book In the Catacombs: a Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery, also published by Penned in the Margins, documents his search to find a great forgotten dead poet.

 

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Poems for Comparing

7th June 2015

 

When I was Head of an English Department at a sixth form college in Sussex back in the 1990s we developed what we called an ‘induction unit’ for students choosing to do English Literature A level with us. From September to November we introduced Year 12 groups to a very wide range of authors and genres offering, we hoped, a veritable smorgasbord of stimulating literature. It was fun to create and to adapt each year and once our new students got over the shock of being told, ‘Don’t worry about the set texts yet…’ they seemed to enjoy the induction unit too!

 

We wanted to avoid anything resembling a set text like I avoid red kidney beans after experiencing a severe case of food poisoning from an insufficiently cooked batch of the red devils many years ago. We did not want to launch in to a detailed analysis of whatever Jane Austen was on the specification that year much as we all loved her novels. No, we wanted to work on generic skills to do with reading texts and writing cogently about them through work on as many different styles of literature as we could effectively pack in to eight weeks.

Of course as the narrator in L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ wearily states, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Today such reckless disregard for the prescribed texts on a specification would probably lead to disciplinary procedures but of course all of us who have ever taught English know and promote in all kinds of ways the value of ‘wider reading’ as a way of enriching the taught and assessed curriculum.

For Poetry by Heart team members it has been very rewarding to hear from teachers about how they are using our freely available online poetry anthology. We have heard not only from those whose students are actually participating in the competition but also those using the collection of 206 poems and 63 First World War poems as a valuable classroom resource without necessarily entering the competition. Making use of the anthology to encourage wider reading and to allow the honing of ‘English’ skills is often mentioned in the feedback we receive.

One demanding element within pre and post 16 English specifications concerns the requirement to compare texts. In the build up to the start of teaching the new GCSE specifications in English there has been much debate about the requirement for students to study at least fifteen poems and to show understanding of the relationships between texts. In A level over many years the importance of making comparisons and seeing connections between texts has been stressed in assessment objectives.

So, all this thinking about wider reading and comparing texts led me to consider what poems I might put alongside some of my favourites in the Poetry By Heart anthology to encourage the development of those generic ‘comparing’ skills that are valued so highly.

Below are 6 suggestions with the (A) poem taken from the Poetry By Heart anthology and the (B) poem chosen from outside our anthology. Some are challenging and some more straightforward. Some might suit a little summer holiday wider reading assignment for Year 9 or 8 before the onset of GCSE and some might suit Year 11 or 12. All the (A) poems are of course available at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk whilst the (B) poems are easily accessible at various sites like www.poemhunter.com

1)      (A) ‘The Soldier’ Rupert Brooke and (B) ‘Drummer Hodge’ Thomas Hardy.

This is a popular pairing and one that has cropped up on many an exam paper over the years but it’s a good one. Brooke’s soldier’s death produces a ‘…corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’ whereas Drummer Hodge’s body lifeless after a Boer War battle is absorbed in to the South African landscape. ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge for ever be.’

2)      (A)’Ae fond kiss and then we sever’ Robert Burns  (B) ‘Since there’s no help come let us kiss and part’ Michael Drayton.

Two moving poems about love and loss and in Drayton’s case lingering hope.

3)      (A) ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ William Blake  (B) ‘The Sluggard’ 1715 Isaac Watts

Taken from his collection ‘Divine Songs’, Watts’ poem is an example of the kind of morally uplifting and ‘improving’ verse that remained very popular for many years after its publication. Blake’s poem of course is much more morally ambiguous and challenging whilst seeming to adopt the conventions of eighteenth century poems for children.

4)      (A) ‘On the Death of Robert Levet’ Samuel Johnson (B) An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell’ John Dryden.

Different approaches in style and tone to commemorating the sadly departed.

5)      (A) ‘You are old father William’ Lewis Carroll (B) ‘The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.’ Robert Southey.

Lewis Carroll’s famous poem from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and the poem by Southey that it so amusingly parodies

6)      (A) ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Night’ The Gawain Poet  (B) ‘Piers Plowman’ Lines 1 to 21 William Langland.(A pairing for Year 12 perhaps?)

Sir Gawain is a favourite amongst the Poetry By Heart team as it reminds us of the remarkable winning recitation of the poem by our first champion Kaiti Soultana in 2013. You can see her recitation here: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/ Comparing these two magnificent middle English alliterative poems would encourage the appreciation of sound effects and the texture of words and would really draw attention to the acoustic quality of verse. The opening 21 lines of ‘Piers Plowman’ show the start of a spiritual journey just as Gawain is journeying in his poem:

‘In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,

I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,

In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,

Wente wide in this world wondres to here.’  (‘Piers Plowman’ The Prologue – lines 1 to 4)

 

What poems would you choose to pair with poems from the Poetry By Heart anthology? It would be great to hear from you.

Mike Dixon is a former Head of English and former Head of a sixth form college on the south coast. He is now an education consultant and delighted to have been part of the Poetry By Heart team since the launch of the project in 2012. mike.dixon@poetrybyheart.org.uk

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International Dylan Thomas Day

12th May 2015

Dylan Thomas – Writing Shed Laugharne. Image Courtesy of Heather Cowper www.heatheronhertravels

A very popular choice this year in the post 1914 section of the Poetry By Heart anthology was Dylan Thomas’ 1934 poem, ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-force-that-through-the-green-fuse-drives-the-flower/ Our evaluation of the 2015 competition suggests that this poem was comfortably in the top quartile of poems selected for recitation. As we approach the first ever international Dylan Thomas Day, poet Martin Daws offers some thoughts on the enduring popularity of Thomas’ verse. Martin writes:

 

Few modern poets are so widely known as Thomas, or so widely liked and even fewer are so pleasurable to read out loud.

Let’s look at the fourth line of Thomas’ verse play, ‘Under Milk Wood’ in which he speaks of the wood limping down to the:

‘sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishingboatbobbing sea’

What a line to memorise and read out loud! It’s a nursery wall of word plays, repetitions, alliterations, internal rhymes, surprise punctuation book-ending unexpected word mergers that combine to create a rising, effervescent music that swells like the sea it describes. This is one fun line of poetery. I can imagine him smiling when he read back over it, rolling it round his mouth, savouring it, like a vintner, taking a craftsman’s pleasure as he sculpted it in to the baritones of his famously resonant reciting voice.

This is spoken word poetry at its best combining the intimate eye of the writer with the lyrical ear of the musician: the two become one in the mouth of the poet or the actor. Many people will know Richard Burton’s famous performance of ‘Under Milk Wood’. You can hear the opening section here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2a6zCR-ycs

Together the poetry and voice combine in a euphonic South Walian symphony of slow drawn warmth inducing a dream like lucidity. This is where word meaning and word sound intersect to make more than their respective parts. This is where poetry comes to life for me; where I find my feeling in it.

A little personal theory with a touch of poetic licence: words are abstract, right?  The word ‘chair’ isn’t a chair – it’s an abstract representation that we understand means a chair. When we hear the word ‘chair’ we perceive it as both an abstract but also a sound and the sound carries its own set of meanings – is it loud, quiet, gentle, angry? Okay, chair is a very neutral word and it’s hard to imagine a ‘chair like’ sound but compare that to the potential in a word like ‘slow’.

The part of Dylan Thomas’ poetry that I respond to best is his exceptional ability to create a fusion of word sounds and their meanings which at its best creates new, holistic word meaning infused with musical feeling; that’s where the poetry is.

About the author:

Performance poet Martin Daws was appointed Young People’s Laureate for Wales in April 2013. Currently very active in this role, Martin works across Wales to engage and inspire young people to empower themselves through their creativity. As Young People’s Laureate Martin also represents Wales internationally; creating partnerships and sharing skills with other socially engaged poetry organisations and practitioners around the world.

For more information about Martin visit: http://www.martindaws.com/

 

 

 

Blog editor Mike Dixon from Poetry By Heart adds:

Literature Wales have provided with us with further information about International Dylan Thomas day and the range of exciting events taking place in May including activities aimed at young people..

All over the UK, online, and from New York, Brussels, New Zealand and Italy people will be celebrating the magic of Thomas’ poetry through a series of walks, talks, readings and exhibitions.

Cerys Matthews MBE, Welsh singer, songwriter, author and broadcaster says: “I’ve enjoyed celebrating Burns Night over the years and often wanted to celebrate Dylan Thomas in the same way – at last there is a date in the diary for Dylan Day. Why not raise a glass to this little great man every year on 14 May and enjoy the chance to savour the brilliance of his work by reading out excerpts and throwing a party, wherever you are!”

How to get involved in the celebrations?

If you are aged between 7 and 25 years old you can submit up to four lines of poetry (in English or Welsh) inspired by the theme ‘our community’ to Dylan’s Great Poem – an international appeal to create a new 100 line–bilingual poem inspired by Thomas’ words.  To submit visit www.developingdylan100.co.uk. The new poem will be revealed on 19th May, and performed live at the Hay Festival.

Get involved on Twitter by taking a photo of yourself reading Dylan in unusual places using the hashtag #DylanSelfie

Take part in one of the many events, walks, readings taking place, including:

‘Take away poems’ by Martin Daws, Young People’s Laureate of Wales, from the Dylan Thomas Writing Shed outside the St David’s Centre in Cardiff on 14 May

The first public display of Dylan Thomas’ notebook at Swansea University.  Bought by the University in 2014 for £104,500

An opportunity to listen to recordings of Dylan’s work from the audio archive of 92Y in New York – the 2014 reading of Under Milk Wood starring Michael Sheen and Kate Burton, and an excerpt from the 1953 premiere, with Thomas himself in the cast. www.92y.org/dylanday

Oxford ‘Walk on the Welsh Side’

Literary Pub Tour in Fitzrovia, London

‘A Dylan Odyssey’ – a collection of Thomas-inspired literary tours will be published by Graffeg.

To find out more about all the events taking place visit www.literaturewales.org.uk/dylan-day/

International Dylan Thomas Day is organised by Literature Wales and funded by the Welsh Government

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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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Publishing Poetry

19th September 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony’s Desert Island Choices:

1)      ‘The Good Morrow’ John Donne

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

2)      ‘Dover Beach’ Matthew Arnold

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

3)      ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ Robert Browning

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

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

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

5)      ‘Skunk Hour’ Robert Lowell

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

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

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

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

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

8)      ‘Aubade’ William Empson

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

 

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

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Words and Music by Nick Freeth

5th September 2014

 

‘Hanging Guitars’ by Zeetz Jones

 

Nick Freeth explores the relationship between poetry and music and discusses musical settings of some of the poems in the Poetry By Heart anthology.

 It’s taken me a long time to stop myself rushing through poetry too quickly. The magic is much more likely to emerge if I recite the lines, or hear them read to me – and these ‘real-time’ processes can’t be hurried. I also love listening to musical settings of some poems, though I know many people have well-founded reservations about this hybrid genre. Words have their own tones and rhythms, which inevitably get overlaid by a composer’s additions; and even the finest verses will be spoiled by dull melodies and accompaniments, or by singers with wobbly voice production and cloudy diction.

 But when poetry and music combine successfully, the outcome is marvellous. I vividly recall participating, as a 12-year-old, in a performance of a choral setting of ‘I sing of a maiden’ by Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). I don’t think I’d have made much of its Middle English words if I’d encountered them in the classroom. But as my fellow choristers and I learned how to sing them, we gradually grasped their meaning, and were able to absorb their inherent sense of wonder. Berkeley’s hushed, mysterious setting complements them perfectly, and is all the better for being uncompromisingly twentieth-century, not ‘faux-medieval.’

Solo songs, where the singer takes on the poet’s voice, tend to produce a more intense effect than choral works. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote his setting of William Barnes’ ‘Linden Lea’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-orchad-in-linden-lea/  for soloist and piano in 1901, and created one of his loveliest tunes for its three stanzas. (Most performers use a standard English version of these, though the printed score also supplies the Dorset dialect words.) He sustains some of the syllables in a way that might have surprised Barnes, but the results sound entirely natural, and the music’s lingering over the words “…cloudless sunshine overhead” evokes, for me, an especially English kind of eternal, pastoral present.

In ‘Linden Lea’, Vaughan Williams employs a single, repeated melody; but when composers choose, instead, to ‘tailor’ their notes to every line of a poem, there’s greater scope to vary the mood, and illustrate the text more elaborately. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) excelled at this, as we can hear from his treatment of two items in the Poetry By Heart anthology: a fragment of Christopher Smart’s ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’ in Rejoice in the Lamb (1943); and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The journey of the Magi’ (Canticle IV, for three solo singers and piano, 1971). http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-journey-of-the-magi/  I have to admit that the canticle setting always leaves me cold, for all its ingenuity, perhaps because I find it hard to imagine Eliot’s Wise Men singing to us at all!

By contrast, music is already at the heart of the words in some of my favourite Britten songs. His early collaboration with W.H. Auden, On This Island (1937), opens with the triumphal flourishes of ‘Let the florid music praise!’, before a disquieting change of mood takes hold. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’, from his Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words (1953), supplies music of almost cinematic clarity for the description of a boy with a violin, and the handcuffed convict who breaks into an ironic ditty (“This life so free is the thing for me!”) on the platform beside him. And in the same work, Britten conjures up a choir of angels “singing and playing the ancient stave” for ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’, the tale “the tenor man told when he had grown old.”

Whatever their brilliance and power, though, do we actually need song settings? Isn’t the poetry complete without them? The answer to the second question is, of course, “Yes”, and I think the items I’ve mentioned must be considered as works of art in their own right – incorporating and augmenting the poems without ever supplanting them. However, there’s one category of verse in Poetry By Heart to which slightly different rules apply: the two ballads, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ and ‘Lord Randall.’

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-wife-of-ushers-well/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/lord-randall/

These pieces have been passed down through the oral tradition as songs, and only make their full impact when heard with their associated melodies. Because several ‘variants’ of the words and music have been preserved, we have a number of versions of the ballads to choose from: the ones I’ve recommended (sung and played by Martin Carthy, one of the ‘greats’ of English folk) are excellent starting points. Enjoy!

Nick’s choices, with suggested recordings of their musical settings (all available on iTunes):

I sing of a maiden (Anon.)

Berkeley’s setting: Choir of Lincoln College, Oxford

Linden Lea (William Barnes)

Vaughan Williams’ setting: Bryn Terfel/Malcolm Martineau

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry (Christopher Smart)

Britten’s setting (from ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’): Michael Hartnett/George Malcolm/Benjamin Britten

The journey of the Magi (T.S. Eliot)

Britten’s setting (‘Canticle IV’): Derek Lee Ragin/Philip Langridge/Gerald Finlay/Steuart Bedford

 Other Britten songs:

Let the florid music praise (W.H. Auden): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

The Choirmaster’s Burial (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

At the Railway Station, Upway (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

Ballads:

The Wife of Usher’s Well (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Signs of Life’)

Lord Randall (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Because It’s There’)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Nick Freeth playing his own ten string cittern made for him by Glasgow luthier Jimmy Moon

Nick was born in London, has been actively involved in music since childhood, and is especially interested in classical and popular English song.

He read English at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, joined the BBC after graduating, and went on have a busy career in music radio production with the Corporation, as Jazz FM’s Senior Producer, and later as a freelance. His BBC commissions included a series for Radio 3 presented by opera singer Robert Tear, shows for Radio 2 and World Service hosted by Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, and a Radio 2 documentary on the British Library’s National Sound Archive. Since 1999, he has been a freelance author, writing extensively about music and American subjects; he also works as an editor and publisher.

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Will the real Helen Mackay please step forward?

17th August 2014

Library of Congress Reading Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry By Heart team member Tom Boughen reflects on the curious case of two Helen Mackays.


If you were part of Poetry By Heart 2013-14, you would know about the brand new First World War poetry showcase, introduced to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war and containing 50 poets from the UK, France, Poland, Germany and America. One poet we picked for inclusion was Helen Mackay, a Scottish nurse who assisted in the war.

The poem we attributed to her: ‘Train’, tells the story of a father saying goodbye to his children before being sent to fight at the front. It is a poignant poem and it was an emotive experience for everyone in the room to see it performed twice at our national finals.

Imagine our surprise when an email landed in our inbox from the good people at the Scottish Poetry Library, asking about this obscure Scottish poet who seemed to have hidden her poetic soul very effectively, instead working as a highly-respected doctor in London for nearly her whole life. I did a bit of digging around to find that, in one of those odd quirks of well-intentioned research, we’d followed some misleading internet sources and attributed ‘Train’ to the wrong Helen Mackay!

The Scottish Helen Mackay, whom we erroneously believed had written ‘Train’, was born in 1891 in Inverness and made groundbreaking research into dietary deficiency. She died in 1965 and by all accounts lived an extremely accomplished life as a paediatrician and as the first woman to be admitted to the Royal College of Physicians, but had never written a verse!

After this tip off from the Scottish Poetry Library and some rooting around we came across an American, a Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay. As with the Scottish Helen Mackay, her background was in medicine. She had worked as a nurse during the First World War. But a Google search turned up nothing. Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, the American poet, was far more obscure than Helen Mackay the Scottish paediatrician.

We needed help in our search, and the Library of Congress, at http://www.loc.gov/, turned out to be our new best friends. The Library has a section on their website where you can ‘Ask a Librarian’, an incredibly useful free resource in which you can – you may have guessed – ask a librarian a question relating to anything the Library of Congress might contain in its vast, hallowed halls and golden bookshelves. Search Google Images for the place; it’s an impressive structure as you can see from the image above.

After enquiring about the poet Helen Mackay, we received a reply a week later. This reply was stocked with information – archived copies of her collections of poetry, a New York Times obituary and Mackay’s entry in Lines of Fire, an illuminating book compiling biographies of female writers in the First World War. Through this information, we found out that Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, writer of ‘Train’ which is found in her collection London, One November, published in 1916 was indeed American, born in 1876. She worked in a Parisian hospital for the length of the war and was a confirmed Francophile, writing narrative sketches of French life and even writing in French herself. The New York Times obituary confirms her fluency in French (and Italian), and names her as a ‘prominent American resident of France’ and especially Paris, where she lived for fifty years. It seems that she must have taken root there after the war and remained until her death in 1961. She was the widow of Archibald Mackay, a member of a New York family with property interests, and seemingly continued her social work in the Second World War.

The American poet Helen Mackay, like many poets on our timeline, lived an exciting, eventful life worthy of a novel or poem of its own. And in common with many of those writers on our timeline, her life was steeped in literature borne out of social conscience.  It’s been fascinating to find out who she really was; thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library and the Library of Congress for helping us along the way.

 

 

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Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

Julie Blake chooses the eight poems she would take with her to a desert island from the Poetry By Heart anthology.

My “Desert Island Poems” challenge had all the usual problems of narrowing the choice to just eight, though at least I only had 206 poems to choose from and I already knew some so well that they would have been wasted choices. Instead, I’ve chosen poems because I love them but don’t have them by heart, and in my long months of solitude I’ll change that.

My first two poems will remind me of family. My grandmother can probably still recite ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’, the first line of Felicia Hemans’ ‘Casabianca’. Catherine Robson’s history, ‘Heartbeats: everyday life and the memorized poem’, has helped me understand why my grandmother would always break off at this point and mutter darkly about all poetry being rubbish. I should like to be able to finish the poem for her. Meanwhile, my grandfather left Scotland at a young age to find his fortune in London; only when he went back at the age of 72 to marry his second wife did he start celebrating Burns night but he died soon after and I’ll never know whether he had a poem. I’ll take ‘Ae fond kiss’ with me and make sure I do. Though the BBC’s recording of Alec Salmond reciting ‘A man’s a man for a’that’ is so gorgeous I may need that as my luxury.

The Scottish connection continues though it’s less about roots and much more about sound: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. I’m a sucker for strongly metrical rhyming poetry – always have been, always will be, and I’m not going to apologise for it now! And it’s funny…

I didn’t know the next two poems at all before Poetry By Heart. Poets Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland selected the anthology and I guided them in avoiding curriculum clunkers and making sure the timeline was balanced. Charlotte Smith’s ‘On being cautioned…’ duly entered as a must-have sonnet. Its setting is Beachy Head, a place I know well having taught for ten years next door to the hospital to which the suicides are helicoptered. The poem will remind me of the pleasures of teaching – and the madness of walking on headlands. Meredith’s poem simply took my breath away with its super-saturated darkness.

My sixth poem has a different kind of darkness. I taught ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ many times and, being a bigger fan of Margaret Atwood’s poetry than her fiction, always started with her poem ‘Notes towards a poem that can never be written’, dedicated to Carolyn Forché. Forché’s poems can be unremitting in their gaze on the horror of our times, and ‘The Colonel’ is especially so. Jennifer O’Sullivan’s performance of it at the 2014 finals is one I’m sure I’ll never forget.

My final two poems will remind me of Poetry By Heart as they are written by two of our poet-judges. I adore tricky forms and Patience Agbabi’s ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’ makes me grin with delight at its technical accomplishment, the second half of the poem a delicious mirroring of the first. And, oh, those Brixton nights…

I can hardly believe how much Poetry By Heart has achieved three years after Andrew Motion and I first talked about it: it’s been immensely hard work by a committed team but also such intense pleasure in hearing young people share the poems they’ve loved and learned. My final choice is Andrew’s new poem ‘The fish in Australia’.  I’ve heard him read it twice and now always hear the cadences of his voice in it. I might learn this one silently and keep it that way.

So if you get the call from the Kirsty Young of the poetry world, which eight poems would you take to keep you company on your sun-kissed desert island?

Julie’s choices

Casabianca (Felicia Hemans)
Ae fond kiss (Robert Burns)
Bagpipe music (Louis MacNeice)
On being cautioned… (Charlotte Smith)
Lucifer in starlight (George Meredith)
The colonel (Carolyn Forché)
Josephine Baker finds herself (Patience Agbabi)
The fish in Australia (Andrew Motion)

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