21st July 2015
English teacher Alison Shaw recounts three experiences of getting the poem right off the page – twice out of the classroom too.
I love Glyn Maxwell’s idea of the first line of a poem being ‘the precise moment at which the pressure of [a] silence breaks into utterance that has to be heard ( Julie Blake, March 2015). It puts me in mind of the transition which is the hallmark of musicals – the sudden switch from speaking to singing, the giddy energy that leaps out when a character launches into song. Who can resist Maria in The Sound of Music when her answer ‘Raindrops on roses…’takes off into melody ( well, perhaps many of you can, but I can’t!)
Poems often burst onto the page in a similar fashion and it struck me that it would be illuminating and fun for students to explore what could have prompted that bursting forth and show it in a mini performance.
I chose some of Shakespeare’s sonnets – ones whose first lines were direct and immediately engaging. We read them through together and then pairs of students decided which one to make the climax of their drama. Improvised conversations sprang up all over the class. Friends started chastising friends; jealous lovers gave vent to their anger; there was a gradual crescendo then ..there it was…’Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day/ And make me travel forth without my cloak..’ uttered Priya, an accusing finger pointing at Emily; ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend/Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?’ said Ruth from the window corner, sitting back to back with her partner. The poems spoken in class were spoken TO someone; they had a real purpose; two of the secrets of great poetry, according to Adrian Mitchell. The students had personalised the poems, made them their own. I realised they had got the poem right off the page and into themselves and the more I could help them do that, the better.
So, when I saw the first line of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’: ‘ O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,’ , I knew my A level class would have to go outside. A blustery October day helpfully came along and we left the classroom and each student positioned themselves by a tree and shouted out the poem. Soon they were battling with the wind more than the poem – they wanted to get those words into the turbulent air. The ‘hear, O hear!’ took on a real power, an energy it could never have harnessed in the classroom.
My most recent attempt at getting the poem off the page was a poetry flash mob for National Poetry Day. We had a little steering committee and the poem finally chosen to commit to memory was Masefield’s ‘I must go down to the sea again’. ( Just the first verse – it was our first attempt, after all!) It had a suitable te tum te tum te tum te tum rhythm – being in ballad form, we could even have practised singing it to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun – try it sometime ( Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence)! It also had a pleasing sense of urgency at the outset and the students loved the aural effects in the line ‘And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking’. Copies of the poem were surreptitiously distributed at the ends of lessons and on corridors. Rehearsals took place behind closed doors. Planning was meticulous: place – the outdoor café; time – first break; technical support – Kevin, the Drama teacher, with whooshing waves sound effects. We were very nervous when the time came, but, all in position, on Roberto’s cue, we nimbly climbed on top of the benches ( I had practised this in advance to avoid inelegance) and, from on high, the recitation began! We had already decided to do the verse twice, but once the rhythm and vision got hold of us we really did not want to stop! We got a good round of applause at the end and felt quite triumphant. Living the poetry – that seems to be an answer!