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Poetry By Heart Blog

The most accessible literature

26th May 2022

I have always loved the accessibility and escapism that poetry can provide but in my teens, when I felt like I needed to escape the most, it was not the first thing that sprang to mind. Somewhere along the line, I had fallen out of love with poetry. I had developed misunderstandings of inaccessibility that were nothing to do with the words on the page. I felt that my own voice had become a distant whisper, but I found myself again through the words of others.

There is safety in poetry; we apply our own identity to those words that someone else has gifted to us. There is something rebellious in interpretation—these words on this page can mean whatever we interpret them to mean: they belong to us and through these patterns, noises, words—our entire existence is intertwined, and we are connected to something greater than ourselves. The idea that my own words could form that connection with someone else—for someone else, was liberating and unifying.

Poetry is the most accessible literature: for the best and worst moments of our lives, there are words expressing the inexpressible. Across so many cultures, spoken word and food have united people, offering the sharing of experiences. What better pairing could there be than poetry and pancakes? And so the idea for our showcase entries was born.

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We selected students who can be quite hard to reach. Students who we knew would shine if only they’d give it a chance. Students who, for a range of reasons, had fallen out of love with poetry or performance or both. Excellent, passionate voices, extinguished by masks and lockdowns and years of uncertainty.

We selected a small cohort of students from year 9 and year 10 to come along and have a go. We headed to the food technology department and made fluffy American pancakes while reciting Christina Rossetti’s ‘Mix A Pancake’. This poem of just 22 words was easy for the students to learn. Reminding them of their capabilities. The rhythm of the poem meant that they could recite it together easily while multi-tasking or brave reciting parts alone. Some of the students even showed us a few of their best pancake-flipping-squirty-cream-catching skills. One of the most insightful things for us was how different both recitals were, which really demonstrates the versatility of poetry and the subjectivity of interpretation. Each student used their creative license to explore the words, performance and of course…pancakes.

It is not always about what we say, but about being heard. Valued. This was not only a great bonding experience for all involved, but a brilliant cross-curricular experience…maybe all poems should be accompanied by a delicious snack.

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Robyn Gardiner is a teacher of English Language and Literature at The Queen Katherine School in Cumbria. She has a comprehensive background in inclusion with a particular interest in educational social justice.

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Close Reading

4th March 2022

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much we generally miss out when we read for meaning. And about what it is that can make a poem come alive for you, make you care about its details and feel connected to it. Memorising and reciting are brilliant ways to ensure that you don’t miss things out, because you have to get all the words active inside you – and in the right order (unlike Eric Morecambe’s famous line to André Previn about musical notes!). I’d like to share an example of this from my own recent experience, which I found revealing in a range of ways that connect with Poetry By Heart.

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I’ve long loved Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It’s about feelings of vulnerability as you get older and are more in touch with dying (not that cheery sounding, I know). Like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poem is addressed specifically to a much younger man who the poet/speaker loves passionately. The age gap between them makes the speaker’s feelings of vulnerability come into focus with particular vividness and intensity. Here’s the sonnet, if you are not familiar with it –

That time of year thou mays’t in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold;
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that ties up all in rest.

In me though see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed by that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

It’s the imagery – lovely and sad, bordering on bleak at times – that makes the poem work, and it was one of my favourite poems even when I was younger, mercifully not thinking about mortality that much. It was only recently that I tried to learn it properly by heart, though, and something extraordinary, that I’d never noticed before, began to come into focus for me about the way the imagery works. Aristotle famously said that in poetry, ‘the greatest thing by far is to be master of the metaphor.’ (Poetics) What I came to realise about this poem, though, was that Shakespeare, instead of performing his consummate mastery of the metaphor in any straightforward way, actually hesitates over how he is going to work the imagery – to the extent that he almost seems to risk losing control.

It was the second line of the poem that brought this sharply into focus for me when I tried to learn it by heart. In setting up a metaphor for his time of life quite traditionally in relation to the seasons, the speaker suddenly starts to go all wobbly about it.  The speaker’s ‘time of life’ is presented as equivalent to the moment when ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few’ hang on the trees’ boughs. This seemed fine to me when I was skipping past the line, reading for its general sense. But when I started to learn it by heart, I began to think ‘Well – which is it, Will?’ The ephemeral glory of autumn’s last show of colour which tourists flock to New England to see in the fall? Or a diminished version of this, when many of the leaves have been stripped away by the wind? Or the stark imagery of life in full retreat, when the branches are laid completely bare? It’s as if Shakespeare is aware not only of the metaphor’s power to develop thought in a uniquely evocative form, but also of where it acquires an energy of its own, breaking in different directions.

Robert Frost has an interesting theory about poetry generating awareness of the limits of metaphorical thought that may provide a useful insight into what I think is happening here. Frost believed that metaphorical thinking underlies nearly all forms of human cognition, including science. However, poetry, he thought, can help navigate such territory more discriminatingly. He wrote that –

‘unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values; you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and in its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.’
(‘Education by Poetry’)

This is ultimately the most important thing that poetry teaches us, for Frost. It offers a kind of training ground in judging how far one should travel along a metaphorical strand of thought before it starts to break down and becomes less useful – or even dangerous.

Is Shakespeare aware of what his metaphor’s limits are here, in the way Frost suggests, perhaps? He doesn’t seem to want to ‘ride’ the metaphor straightforwardly to its logical conclusion, but instead allows the image to break, like a river’s flow, in a number of different directions. Perhaps the metaphor doesn’t – or can’t – convey the full actuality of the speaker’s situation and feelings? Or is it fuller than the prosaic version of an actual moment and situation? Perhaps all metaphors encompass potentialities – worlds within worlds – in the same way that quantum physics has taught us that matter is indeterminable when we try to calibrate its movement and mass at the level of the smallest particle.

Before learning it by heart, I had read through the line about the yellow leaves repeatedly without noticing that there was anything unusual about it. I saw the various renderings of the image as all more or less the same – details piled on to give a more concrete sense of the wintry scene – rather than noting anything that made me more curious. But when you learn a poem by heart you have to get the precise sequence of words and images right. Do ‘few’ leaves come before ‘none’ – as they should do if the line were simply a progression along a timeline of diminishing life – or afterwards? Although the metre would be exactly the same, the line would be a lot smoother – and perhaps easier to remember? – if ‘few’ were switched with ‘none’ in a mathematically straightforward sequence. Instead Shakespeare deliberately makes the line more disruptive. Trying to fix the line in your memory, you realise that the illogical positioning of the sequence is a kind of clue, alerting you to something that may be more important – and odd – than you first thought. The wobble is indicative of a deeper level of uncertainty, I think, as Shakespeare hesitates over the adequacy of his metaphor to convey the range of potential feelings and situations involved.

Perhaps this relates most strongly to anxiety about what quality of passion and what enduring love you can retain as you approach death? Will the sap of the speaker’s strong emotions sink low as he approaches the end of his life? The image of trees stripped bare of all leaves suggests this possibility. Or will his fading vitality produce an extraordinary last burst of intense colour, as in the display of autumn’s yellow leaves? Or something in between? Projecting forwards entails uncertainty, which the instability of the metaphors encompass. The next two quatrains in the sonnet complete this process, each developing a new metaphor for the speaker’s feelings about his ageing body, as though the previous image didn’t quite cut it. First, the opening image of trees is substituted for the metaphor of afterglow, just after sunset: the light sustaining life at its most ephemeral edge before darkness takes over. Then this too gives way to the glowing embers of a fire, ‘that on the ashes of his youth doth lie’. It is as though the poem is testing out possibilities of the form in which a consuming passion may still be present as death approaches. It’s refusal to settle is also a commitment to inhabiting the potentialities of life and love as dynamic, incapable of being fixed in time, always subject to change.

We are – all of us – imperfect readers. We read selectively, moving on when we think we have grasped the sense, locking onto what we need at that moment, just as we only perceive a fraction of what is actually around us at any point in time. Memorising can bring us closer to a complete experience of the poem itself, however, as opposed to the interpretation or meanings we have abstracted from it. This is still an interaction, of course – a creative, two-way process in which we bring our own experience to the encounter and make the poem our own inside ourselves. But it is the whole poem. And the slow, chewed over, and many times repeated ritual of getting by heart all the words in sequence brings the poem into focus in its entirety. If this is not done purely by rote, we are likely then to become attentive to things we’d never noticed before. And, perhaps most importantly, we become closer to the poem. As Robert Frost (yes, him again) also observed, ‘[T]he closeness, everything depends upon the closeness with which you come [to the encounter]’. It’s this closeness which is the fundamental element in our relationship to poetry, he thought: it can yield insights worth more than all the strained, foolish – and even clever – things we can say and think without it.

 

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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Carrying poetry with you

6th January 2022

Through working for Poetry By Heart, Tom Boughen tells us he’s grown to better understand the legacy of poetry memorisation in schools, and the effort to provide better resources for teachers and students to engage with.

Many older people have memories of learning poetry by rote in class. The spectrum of personal experience means those memories can easily be accompanied by a nostalgic smile or a painful shudder. There is such an enormous disparity between people’s personal experiences of poetry memorisation in schools, depending on resources, teacher preparedness, the suitability of the poems or the age when you first attempted it. It is almost a roulette-spin between the most inspirational moments of one’s education, or some of the dreariest and most disengaging.

It was one of those November evenings when night creeps up at four o’clock. Over dinner with my grandad at my parents’ house, the subject of poetry memorisation reared its head. I’d never given much thought to my family’s own experiences of it. With no prompt from me, my grandad, ninety-five years old that October, freely recited the first two stanzas of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Remarkably the only thing he forgot was the poet and poem title. When reminded of the poet’s name he exclaimed “that was it, Yeats!” like remembering an old friend. His ability to recite the poem wasn’t based on the visual. He hadn’t seen the written form of it for many years. It was a poem that he learned by rote at fourteen, coinciding with the outbreak of the Second World War, and was able to recite at a dinner table over eight decades later.

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is the only poem he remembers from that class of over thirty students, in which poems were recited en masse. Occasionally a student was required to stand up in front of everyone to recite alone, with the implied threat that if you forgot any of the words, you would be required to do this again and again until you did remember.

Victorian narrative poems and ballads were the trend of the late 1930s and early 1940s schoolroom. My grandad recalls staid, sedate lessons where he studied ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ by Matthew Arnold and ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Tennyson. He would have liked to do ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’ – battles and certain-death glory seem to have appealed to him more than lyrical romanticism – but he never had the opportunity. He has one of his old exam papers from the time, showing the significance of Victorian narrative poetry, even in 1940.

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His eyes light up when remembering Shakespeare. In comparison to learning poetry by rote as a whole class, with Shakespeare each student was assigned a specific speaking part, and encouraged to bring a more creative interpretation of the dialogue. I was surprised to hear that his teachers adopted such a free approach to Shakespeare especially compared to the mass rote-learning of poetry, but regardless it explains the enduring appeal of Shakespeare to my grandad.

We often say that to learn a poem by heart is to carry it with you for life. This is my testimony to the possibility of that. My grandad has carried Yeats with him like a treasured possession for eighty years, along with a slice of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He can still start the doomed soliloquy:

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.’

 

Tom Boughen is Content Coordinator at Poetry By Heart, has a History MA and previously worked as a TEFL teacher in Madrid. He enjoys reading, writing and playing tennis.

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My poetry by heart learning journey

1st December 2021

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

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

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

learning journey

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

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

Poetry by Heart brought poetry home for me…

 

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

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National Poetry Day – with popcorn and Parliament!

18th November 2021

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just because I am a Muslim

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

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

Emine Omer

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What Poetry Means To Us

23rd September 2021

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


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

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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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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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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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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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