Poetry By Heart Blog

Black poets matter – the Poetry By Heart poem collections

26th November 2020

In response to emails from a student and a teacher at different times this term, we’ve been thinking about all the black and minority ethnic poets featured on the Poetry By Heart website.  As our filters don’t yet make it easy to see them all in one place, we’ve gathered the 75 poems from across our collections and put them all here! If you click on a poet portrait, you’ll be taken to a poem by that poet somewhere on the site. Some poets have more than one poem so you’ll find some portraits repeated. Sometimes they cluster together and sometimes they are further apart – we sequenced them by the poem’s publication date. You’ll find exciting contemporary poets (some of whom are our national competition judges and MC) as well as poets who lived in the 20th century, and a few from previous centuries. There are poets born in or who migrated to Britain, and poets from other regions and countries including the Caribbean, India and the USA. There are favourite poets whose poems have featured regularly in school anthologies and there are poets who are less well known. The poems are drawn together from all the different timeline and showcases.

We hope this blogpost will be a source of joyful discovery, reading and sharing these poems aloud – and a resource for classroom discussion, independent research and student projects on poets they want to explore further. We’d love to see inspiring and magical performances of all these poems recited in this year’s competition – if your students want inspiration, some of the poem pages also feature student performances. And we’d love to have additional suggestions to consider in our next review of the site in the summer term.
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Quarto to Showcase – creating a digital collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets

26th June 2020

In this week’s blogpost, Tom Boughen, who is currently helping us add new learning material to the Poetry By Heart website, explores how Shakespeare’s plays were opened up for him by his A Level English teacher and how working on our Shakespeare’s Sonnets Showcase has now introduced him to the sonnets too.

I have a personal certainty that anyone who engages with Poetry By Heart for any length of time will walk away having learned something about poetry that they didn’t know before. This is no less true for those of us who work on the project. I’ve been spending time in the company of William Shakespeare’s 154 published sonnets, which are at the heart of Renaissance literary tradition, yet I have to admit that I knew little about them until recently.

I was surprised to find how much I did know, the snippets which have wormed their way into the public consciousness. Like many quotes from great literature which have done this, they come without much recognition of their origin.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

or

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,

And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field…

or

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red…

These might ring a bell, but it feels really satisfying to actually see these in their full context, akin to finally remembering the title of a song when the tune has been at the back of your mind for a few days.

The Shakespeare sonnet showcase has been on the site for a while, since 2017. It was originally created to continue the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. It often feels that we never really stop the ongoing celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works but we thought we could help students to discover something new. This is a challenge when contending with possibly the most famous writer in the English language and given that he was writing 400 years ago, when the English language was very different to today.

We took that challenge head-on. Alongside the modern English version we offered an alternate version published with the original spellings of 400 years ago. The development of language, and its evolution over the last 400 years, is evident when lining up two versions of the same poem – and it’s fascinating. And if you thought Shakespeare’s writing only works with a refined, upper-class accent, try watching the video below of Trevor Eaton reciting Sonnet 18 in Original Pronunciation.

Trevor Eaton – Sonnet 18 -Original Pronunciation from Poetry By Heart on Vimeo.

The development of language from Shakespearean English to modern English is also evident with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) links available throughout the showcase. We plan to add many more links in the coming weeks. Each link will take you to the OED definition, specific to the context of the poem, and find out the background to any words that might be obscure, difficult to understand, or just plain quirky.

From grappling with Hamlet in my own English A-Level class, I know that Shakespeare really comes alive when it’s taken off the page and is instead tumbling out of people’s mouths. As a moody, testosterone-filled teenager, the themes of parental alienation and destructive masculinity really struck a chord with me, but never more until I actually watched Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, David Tennant, Laurence Olivier – and yes, even Mel Gibson – deliver the lines which before had often seemed perplexing. In the same way that you can pick up on the meaning of a sentence in a foreign language by tone, body language and voice, you can do the same with Shakespearean English.

On this basis, each sonnet includes an audio recitation by Professor David Fuller, who has studied the link between sound and meaning in the sonnets, and many more also have links to Poetry Archive readings by poets. We also plan to include more videos of a wide variety of actors and performers giving their own unique interpretations.

Ultimately, through helping to build this project, I have a greater level of personal accessibility to the world of Shakespeare’s sonnets than I did a few weeks ago. All credit to my A Level English teacher, who employed a wide range of resources to help unlock Shakespeare’s plays. Now I’m beginning to see his sonnets in the same light, and I hope the Poetry By Heart Shakespeare showcase will help more young people in the same way.

 

 

Tom Boughen currently teaches English as a language assistant in Madrid. A full-time member of the Poetry By Heart team between 2013 and 2016, he still occasionally returns to make contributions to the project, and otherwise spends his time reading, writing, going for walks and practising his Spanish.

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Illustrating ‘The Witch': artist Ben Westley Clarke explains how he went about it

3rd February 2020

Witch BWC

In this blogpost, artist Ben Westley Clarke explains how he went about illustrating Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s poem for Poetry By Heart. This is designed to accompany Mike Dixon’s resource for creative explorations of a poem which can be found in the Poetry By Heart Teaching Zone.

The first, and perhaps the most important thing I did, when I began work on illustrating ‘The Witch’, was to write the poem down in my own rough, barely legible handwriting. This gave me a feel for the length of its lines and stanzas, as well as its structure and rhythms – I knew that nothing else would give me as much insight into how the poem was made. It helped me to give equal attention to words or phrases that I might normally skip over. The more I read the poem, the more the initial idea I had in my head of a stereotypical witch, with a pointed hat and a broomstick, dissolved. It gave way to a more shadowy, mutating, ambiguous character. I noted the persistent parallels between this old, ragged woman and the memory of her more nubile, less browbeaten self.

 

Small-ish pencil drawings formed the basis of my preparatory work. I continued to be drawn to the references to the old woman’s youth throughout the poem, as well as, towards the end of the poem, the mention of the figure who greets her to ‘lift her over the threshold’. The word ‘threshold’ is ambiguous – it could be a physical threshold (the woman coming in from the cold) or it could be the threshold between life and death. I conceived of this helpful figure as mirroring the old woman – perhaps she is a younger version of her. Are both characters facets of the writer’s personality? I was also drawn to the regular description of the hostile weather environment, which conjured images of snow, blowing leaves and bare, twisted trees.

 

I remembered drawing old bodies in life drawing classes – I had noted their androgyny and sometimes exaggerated features. Their crumpling, sagging skin reveals, more than younger bodies do, the skeletal structure underneath. The ‘carrying over the threshold’ reminded me of so many themes in religious painting – especially the Pieta – the Virgin Mary carrying the dead Christ. In particular, I thought of Van Der Weyden’s ‘The Descent From The Cross’, a painting I had drawn from at the Prado Museum in Madrid, in which a group of mourning figures supports Christ’s body as it falls.

 

I made a large number of loose sketches, all based on my memory of bodies. I also drew from a handful of photographs of old faces. I formatted the drawings so that there would be one for each stanza of the poem. I then went about drawing up a final design, over which ink was added. My illustration feels to me like one potential visualization of many, but I’ve tried to ensure that it is lucid and that it transports the viewer.


About Ben Westley Clarke
Ben Westley Clarke (b. Ipswich, 1990) studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and later at the Royal Drawing School. Ben lived in London for 10 years before moving to Madrid in 2018, after he received the Richard Ford Award to study at the Prado Museum. Ben is primarily a painter who works from both observation and memory. He is interested in empathetic depictions of human figures in Art History, from Velásquez to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Drawing is the lifeblood of his work. He has been involved in a number of educational projects over recent years, including the execution of a mural commission for a primary school in the Community of Madrid, and the direction of Family Art Workshops at the Royal Academy of Arts. Ben is also a curator and tattooist.

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Dizzy Raptures

21st November 2019

Roms showcase snip_edited v2 800pxThis week we’re focusing on the new Romantic Poetry showcase we recently added to the website. We developed this because (a) what’s not to love, learn and recite and (b) we wanted to support GCSE and A Level students with a wider surround-sound to the poems they’re studying. Judith Palmer, Director of the Poetry Society, made a delicious selection of these poems and many more in association with friends and colleagues at the Romantic poets’ literary societies, trusts and houses. Over time, we’ll come back to Judith’s selection and adding more poems to the showcase.

So, for this week’s blogpost, we asked Mike Dixon to talk us through the pleasures and treasures of the new Romantic Poetry showcase. In addition to his role on the Poetry By heart senior project development team, Mike has single-handedly written almost all of the poem introductions and poet biographies on the website. He is also a BIG fan of the Romantics!

 

How times change! When I was teaching English in a sixth form college I was relentlessly teased by my departmental colleagues for decrying the absence of Wordsworth on Awarding Bodies’ specifications. Now the GCSE requirement for students to study “representative Romantic poetry” leaves me feeling “dizzy raptures” – as does the creation of a new Romantic Poetry showcase on the Poetry By Heart website.

I’d like to take you on a little journey through our new showcase and along the way make a few suggestions as to the serious fun to be had with the poets and poems we have included, and how they might inspire pupils to take part in one of the Poetry By Heart 2019-20 competitions.

Different poets, different lives

We have initially selected 23 poets and 59 poems. In a period we might think of as being dominated by “dead white males” we have chosen 12 male and 11 female poets. We are delighted to present poems by some of the most famous names in English Literature like Keats and Wordsworth but you will also find wonderful poems by less familiar names like Charlotte Smith and Phillis Wheatley. There is lots to explore in the strikingly different lives of the aristocratic, “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Lord Byron and Phillis Wheatley the former slave and the first African-American woman to publish a collection of poetry. Who will your pupils find most interesting? This might be a starting point for learning a pre-1914 poem for the Individual Recitation competition.

Rhythm, energy and musicality

We’ve invited choral/group recitation entries to the Poetry Celebration competition. We want to re-energise this mode of performing poems with all the imagination and creativity you and your pupils want to bring to it. We think some tremendous group recitations will emerge when using poems where the musicality, energy and rhythm of the verses stand out. For example in our collection students might work on Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib”, Blake’s “The Tyger”; Scott’s “Lochinvar”; Southey’s “Cataract of Lodore” and Hemens’ “Casabianca”. Give it a go and enter your best group performance for the Poetry Celebration competition, though each of these poems could also be learned by an individual too!

Dramatic transformations

Following on from last week’s blogpost by Anne Varty, in which she described creating a dramatic performance from an anthology selection of poems, you could work with a numbe rof the poems in the Romantic Poetry showcase in this way, or you could take one poem with a dramatic potential and workshop a performance. Great poems from the collection for this activity might be, Southey’s “The Complaint of the Poor”; the extracts from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge; Mary Robinson’s “The Haunted Beach” and Blake’s “Holy Thursday” and “The Chimney Sweeper”. The performance could be entered for the Poetry Celebration competition or this might be a way in to developing an individual recitation.

Love in a poem, loving a poem

The filters in the Romantic Poetry showcase mean pupils could start by picking a theme that appeals to them – click on the “find a poem” button and then pop open the filters. There are 22 to choose from! So, for example, use the filter menu to identify the dozen or so poems that are about different aspects of love. Compare and contrast exercises might pair Keats’ “When I Have Fears” with Clare’s “First Love” or Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving” with Burns’ “Ae Fond Kiss” for example. This might help pupils with unseen reading, perhaps starting with one of their GCSE anthology poems and comparing it with another. It might also help choose a poem for the individual recitation competition – nothing like a comparison for working out what you like more or less.

We hope you enjoy exploring the collection and we would love to hear how you have used our new Romantics showcase.

 

“Dizzy Raptures” is taken from “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth, an extract of which appears in the Romantic Poetry showcase.

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Voices From The First World War

3rd March 2016

3.48pm Orgreave by  BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

3.48pm Orgreave by BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

On March 19th 2016 at Homerton College 41 young people will recite poems chosen from the Poetry By Heart World War One showcase. In the run up to this moving event we are delighted to publish an article by Connie Ruzich first seen on her Blog http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/  that features two of the poets in our anthology: Robert Graves and Charles Sorley.

On October 5th, 1915, twenty-year-old Charles Sorley wrote to his father describing his time in the trenches outside Loos: “…rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath!”  Sorley was known for his love of stormy weather: as a student at Marlborough College, he exulted in wet and windy runs across the trails of Marlborough Downs.   An excerpt from the last stanza of “Song of the Ungirt Runners,” a poem he wrote in early 1915, expresses that passion:

The rain is on our lips,

We do not run for prize.

But the storm the water whips

And the wave howls to the skies.

Eight days after writing to his father, on October 13, 1915, in one of the last attacks of the Battle of Loos, Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.  In the chaos of the battle, his body was never recovered: he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, along with 20,609 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.  His poetry was published three months after his death in the slim volume Marlborough and Other Poems. 

In February 1916, Robert Graves, another soldier poet serving in France, wrote to his friend Edward Marsh that he had “just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley” and that “It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age.”  In 1918 Graves’ published a volume of his own poems, Fairies and Fusiliers: it includes a poem that remembers Charles Sorley and celebrates a life of action.

Sorley’s Weather

WHEN outside the icy rain
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
  Snugly under shelter?
Shall I make a gentle song         5
  Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
  And the lanes are muddy?
With old wine and drowsy meats
  Am I to fill my belly?         10
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
  Shall I drink with Shelley?
Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
  Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,         15
  Winter rains are wetter.
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
  For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
  And the ghost of Sorley.

 

(Robert Graves 1895 – 1985)

 

Tobacco, firelight, and poetry are pleasant and good, but “Sorley’s Weather” urges readers to put down their books and stride out into rough storms on rain-blown hills.  Experiencing the wildness of nature is far better than retreating to the fireside with the Romantics.  Even Percy Shelly’s meditations on nature (“The wilderness has a mysterious tongue/ Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild”) can be left behind on the window sill.  Sorley’s own poem “Rain,” written in 1912, tells readers where to find him:

 

When the rain is coming down,
And all Court is still and bare,
And the leaves fall wrinkled, brown,
Through the kindly winter air,
….
There is something in the rain
That would bid me to remain:
There is something in the wind
That would whisper, “Leave behind
All this land of time and rules,
Land of bells and early schools.

 

For those mourning the dead and remembering the thousands of every day tragedies of the Western Front, it was windswept hills, mud, and winter rain that were best able to summon the ghosts of the men and boys who would never return.  At the start of the Battle of Loos, torrential rains flooded the trenches, and Graves’ poem calls to mind the conditions of the war, as well as the weather that Sorley loved so well in life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing about another rover and warrior, wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  Not long after enlisting, Sorley wrote in a letter home, “Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Powell, A Deep Cry).

Connie Ruzich About the AuthorDr. Connie Ruzich is a University Professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2014, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the ways in which the poetry of the First World War has been used to frame, commemorate, and discuss the war.  She has been teaching language and literature for twenty-two years, and her research examines how language use and practices shape identity.  In her spare time, she enjoys hiking in the woods, listening to obscure bands from the 1980s, and watching goat videos on YouTube. She writes a blog that shares and discusses poetry of World War I, focusing on the lost voices of the war: Behind Their Lines

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New Additions to the Poetry By Heart First World War Showcase

2nd January 2015

In January and Feburary 2015  the county round of Poetry By Heart will be taking place up and down the country in arts centres, libraries and museums. In forty two different venues students will be reciting not only their pre and post 1914 poems but also a poem chosen from the special Poetry By Heart First World War showcase. In another January Blog post Anne Caldwell reflects on how she made use of the showcase within a memorable First World War commemorative event in Bolton whilst below Poetry By Heart Project Assistant Tom Boughen highlights some of the new additions to the showcase

 

The First World War collection has been an integral part of the Poetry By Heart experience for over a year. We uploaded the first poems to the showcase in November 2013 to coincide with Remembrance Day, and were impressed by the way in which so many students brought these poems to life with emotional and powerful recitations in the County rounds.

We’re very pleased to announce that we have expanded the collection for the centenary year! The aim has always been to include a variety of voices, from the old British favourites Owen and Sassoon, to Guillaume Apollinaire (French), Edward Slonski (Polish), Stadler and Trakl (German), Seeger (American); the contemporary voices (Andrew Motion, Mick Imlah, Owen Sheers), and to also include the voices of women such as Sara Teasdale and Helen Mackay, offering witness to the horrors of war from the home front and hospital units. Taken together from so many different sources, we hoped that this collection would be a diverse showcase of poetry from different corners of the same conflict.

With these additions we hope our collection continues in this vein.

Anna Akhmatova – In Memoriam, July 19, 1914

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/

Akhmatova’s poem is the first in our collection to shed light on the Russian experience, and concerns the declaration of war on Germany; with a real sense of impending doom.

Laurence Binyon – For The Fallen

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-the-fallen/

You already know the fourth stanza; it is quoted every 11th November…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Discover the rest of Binyon’s elegant and enduring tribute.

Mary Borden – Song of The Mud  

Mary Borden (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/song-of-the-mud/

One of the greatest horrors of trench warfare is often overlooked. Borden writes about the ‘invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone’ in a poem that becomes distinctly more nightmarish as it goes on.

Eleanor Farjeon – Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/easter-monday-in-memoriam-e-t/

You may know the prolific poet Edward Thomas – he also appears in our anthology. Eleanor Farjeon, best known for her children’s stories, had a close relationship with Thomas which ended in heartbreak with his death in April 1917. This poem is affecting for its simplicity with a particularly poignant ending. Farjeon’s mourning is tangible throughout the lines.

Julian Grenfell – Into Battle

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/into-battle/

The best-known war poets – for example Sassoon and Owen – are vociferously anti-war and deeply cynical. Grenfell’s poem is one of few in our collection that is overwhelmingly in favour of the war, portraying the soldier’s struggle as one of destiny. It is curious to wonder how Grenfell’s thoughts on the war might have changed had he lived past 1915.

Rudyard Kipling – My Boy Jack

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-boy-jack/

A poem about loss and regret, and barely disguised mourning for Kipling’s son Jack, killed in action early on in the war. A simple poem, but no less powerful for its simplicity

Glyn Maxwell – My Grandfather At The Pool

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-grandfather-at-the-pool/

Contemporary poet and Poetry By Heart judge Glyn Maxwell’s poem is about the act of remembrance and his grandfather, and the effect history has on the living.

Ezra Pound – Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Part I)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/hugh-selwyn-mauberley-part-i/

This is an extract taken from Pound’s lengthy eighteen-part poem. His language is visceral and contemptuous of the ‘botched civilisation’, ‘an old bitch gone in the teeth’ for which so many men died.

Edgell Rickword – Trench Poets

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/trench-poets/

The first of two new additions by Edgell Rickword. He served as a soldier and survived the war, becoming increasingly more political in later life as a committed socialist. This poem is bleakly comic, describing a solder attempting to fend off the rats and worms from consuming the body of his dead friend (we told you it was bleak!).

Edgell Rickword – The Soldier Addresses His Body

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-soldier-addresses-his-body/

There is a strange sense of detachment in this poem, and Rickword returns to the gallows humour present in Trench Poets. It ends with an unusual sense of self-deprecation, as he decides to ‘have a drink, and give the cards a run and leave dull verse to the dull peaceful time.’

That’s our run through the new additions! With the county contests coming up, hopefully we’ll see and hear some of them being recited at arts venues and libraries across the country.

 

Tom Boughen (standing second from the left with other members of the Poetry By Heart team) is a key part of the Poetry By Heart set up for the 2014-15 competition having completed a work placement with Penguin UK to help out with the Poetry By Heart book published on October 2nd. He is a University of Bristol history graduate and the PBH paid project assistant for the life of the competition.

(Main image above – ‘Poppy Field’ by Mark Shirley – Creative Commons)

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Will the real Helen Mackay please step forward?

17th August 2014

Library of Congress Reading Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie’s choices

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

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