Poetry By Heart Blog

Voyages in Verse – editing She Will Soar

30th September 2020

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

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

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

It starts – of course – with reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Close encounters with poetry

16th July 2020

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

@poetrycandle

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Unplugged: exploring a poem through drawing

4th June 2020

In this week’s blogpost, Julie Blake thinks about beginning to learn a poem by heart – by hand writing and hand drawing.

This week we had an email from a state school teacher who said this of Poetry By Heart, the competition and our team: “Beyond the sound pedagogy of the competition and the love of poetry which it aims to foster, there is a deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful group of people.” I was lost for words. Lots of teachers say nice things to us about the competition but the word “humane” took me right back to the very beginning of my career in education when I was clear that I wanted to walk in the path of the humanists, concerned with the whole child and their process of becoming creative, critical and capable of acting to make the world a better place. Years of teaching all exam classes knocked some of the stuffing out of my idealism, but fundamentally, it’s still where I’m at. In this blogpost, I’m thinking about how our newest resources, all about exploring a poem through drawing, might create a space for moments of learning that are also deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful.

Give it a go: poem posters

We’ve been creating poem-posters since the beginning of Poetry By Heart in 2013 because as former teachers we know the joy of something new and interesting for your classroom wall. Our first ones included a few lines from one of the poems on our poetry timeline, with a related image and some of the words redacted with the idea that this might intrigue students to look up the poem and figure out the blanks. In the end we decided this was merely annoying and in the next and all subsequent series we’ve used the whole poem. We send a pack of poem-posters out each year to schools and colleges taking part in the competition, to help generate interest among your colleagues and students, and we love seeing them up in corridors, libraries and classroom walls when we visit or when we see pictures of your competitions over on Twitter.

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Our designers are fabulous and everyone on the Poetry By Heart team has a secret Poetry By Heart poem-poster favourite. But as we’ve thought about this more recently, we’ve realised that there have been gains and losses in the changes we’ve made. The posters have gradually become both more beautiful and more removed from the modest pedagogical ambition of those redactions. They are gorgeous artefacts, and we think they help to raise the profile of your competitions, but what, ultimately, can you do with them apart from attach them to a wall. So, while still sending those out to competing schools, we’ve also been experimenting with a more pedagogically-inflected style of poem-poster, hand-drawn and hand-written.

You might well have already seen our poem-poster for Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s uncanny little poem, ‘The Witch’. We’ve used it in flyers promoting the competition at various times this year and the young artist who created it, Ben Westley Clarke, has blogged about his creative process for us.

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Now we’ve added four more designs by Ben, for Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate’, William Blake’s ‘London’ and John Clare’s ‘I Am’.  All five poem-posters are hand-drawn in pencil (later overlaid with ink) and they present the poem in the artist’s hand-written form. They’re in the Learning Zone for you to download and use with your students as you wish.

The question remains, though: what do you do with them? Stick them on the wall, by all means. We asked Ben to work only in black and white so that if you wanted to enlarge them on a basic school photocopier, you could. If you want to get them printed bigger for your classroom, let us know via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk. Post them on your digital platform, too, by all means. But they’re really designed as inspiration for students to have a go at creating a poem-poster themselves, needing nothing more elaborate than a pencil and a piece of paper.

This “unplugged” dimension to our poem-posters is important though it has become so in ways we didn’t predict. Who knew last summer when we started thinking about our poem-posters that we would all be engulfed by the outbreak of Covid-19? With such starkly differential access for students to computers and other devices at home now, our approach looks prescient, though of course it wasn’t.

What we actually had in mind was a number of different ideas that coalesce in interesting ways:

From memory research, the idea that when you hand write something, it stays longer in the memory than something typed on a keyboard. It’s something to do with the embodied act of handwriting, muscle memory and time by contrast with the speed and anonymity of machine writing.

From students telling us time and again that one of the their first steps after choosing a poem was to write it out by hand, sometimes doing so many times over in order to lodge the poem in mind. Sometimes they wrote out a few copies and posted them around the house so they could see them as they washed up or brushed their teeth.

From poetry and memory research, the idea that the parts of the brain that respond to a poem are the same parts of the brain that respond to a friend – hang out together long enough, doing something, and the poem-friendship deepens.

The idea that every text transformation – a poem’s written form into a designed poem-poster or an animation or a song – involves the same fundamental act of commitment, interpretation and appreciation as a poem recitation, and perhaps rather more personal investment, curiosity and enjoyment than a PEE paragraph in an exam preparation essay.

And we thought about Glyn Maxwell’s wonderful book, On Poetry, in which he invites us to consider the first line of a poem as a snapshot, a precise moment captured in which a speaker suddenly breaks the silence in order to say these very particular words. He says:

“The younger arts can help us. As film helps with stanza-break, let photography help with first lines. Imagine any first line as a photographic frame. How much of the frame is taken up by the face of the poet? Is his or her whole figure in the poem, is he or she farther away? Back to you, gesturing into the distance? Hovering spectrally above? Seated, standing, walking? Is the picture in colour? What does he or she think of you? Can you be seen at all? Is the poet present at all?” (Glyn Maxwell (2012), On Poetry. Oberon Books Ltd, London.)

Drawing a poem involves seeing a poem, exploring its meaning and values, its verbal texture and its shape. It involves thinking about how to make that tangible for someone else, in a visual form. This visual form that might be enough in its own right, an aesthetic response to an aesthetic object, or it might form the basis for explanation and discussion of a literary interpretation that is unique to the student and precious for that. And for us at Poetry By Heart, it’s a rich and meaningful way to begin to know a poem, slowly, as the basis of learning it by heart, slowly, and to create a unique, personal resource for continuing the process of learning it by heart, slowly. We’d love to feature some student poem-posters in the Learning Zone alongside Ben’s and to see them shared on Twitter in a virtual Poetry By Heart poem-poster exhibition! The first step is for students to explore the poems on the Poetry By Heart website and to find one they love and want to draw. So much lies in the choosing…

To finish, here are some more of Ben’s thoughts about illustrating poems.

Illustrating William Blake’s ‘London’

I was first introduced to this poem by my best friend, about 10 years ago, whilst he was studying for an English Literature degree and I was studying at the Slade School of Art. We lived together whilst we both worked a summer job at a Paella stall on Covent Garden Market. The poem grew and grew on me as I stayed in London – I ended up relating it, with perhaps too lucid a historical imagination, to my own contemporary experience of the sprawling City as a place of alienation, injustice and sorrow. I have been making images of London’s streets for several years and have often drawn from observation in areas like Hackney and Camden, or at events like the Notting Hill Carnival. I’m interested in the bustle of street life – people’s clothing, how things are revealed or obscured by gaps or blockages in one’s line of sight; and the strange clashes that one encounters between completely different types of people. I decided to do a street scene in this vein, using the costume of Blake’s era.

Illustrating Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate':

I was instantly attracted to Christina Rossetti’s somewhat humble eye for detail in her poem ‘A Frog’s Fate’. I wanted to draw the sequence of events from the poem – the big frog, surrounded by nature, carefree; followed by him meeting his sudden fate at the hands of the horse-drawn wagon which comes careering down a country lane. The ‘Waggoner’ isn’t described in detail – I found his anonymity slightly sinister – I thought of him as a hooded ‘death’ figure, like a character from an Edward Burra watercolour. For some reason, the serious-humour aspect of the poem, as well as its urge to describe nature, also made me think of Japanese woodblock printing and artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kyosai. I wanted to draw in a crisp, clear way – apt to describe nature in detail, but also flexible enough to be spontaneous and inventive.

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart. As Dr Julie Blake she is also a researcher in children’s literature and a Digital Humanities Methods Fellow at Cambridge University. Her doctoral thesis asked and answered the question: What did the national curriculum do for poetry?

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Poems Need to be Read Aloud

6th May 2020

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

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


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Joseph Coelho

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Karen Lockney

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

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

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

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

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

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Some observations from a Year 7 pupil:

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


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

 

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

 

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

13th February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Learning lines – an actor’s perspective

22nd February 2018


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

How do actors learn all those lines?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamsin added:

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

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

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

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Words on your Wall

8th November 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where the magic happens.

12th April 2017

Alison Powell talks to actor, director and magician, Peter Clifford, about Shakespeare, magic and memory

 

‘You like stuff to do with Shakespeare and memory,’ a friend of mine said, recently. ‘You should see this magician, Peter Clifford. He’s memorized the entire works of Shakespeare.’

‘The entire works?’

‘Yep.’

‘37 plays? 154 sonnets? 5 long narrative poems? Word for word?’

‘Yes, seriously. He gets audience members to pick random pages from The Complete Works and he can recite lines from any of them. He’s amazing.’

We all know that a magician never reveals his secrets, but as Poetry By Heart launched its special Shakespeare Sonnet Competition this year, inviting students and staff to memorise individual sonnets, it seemed only right to ask advice from a man who appears to have memorized them all. So in the interests of research, I went along to one of Peter Clifford’s magic shows.

Early in the evening, Peter performed a memory feat in which he listed the titles of Shakespeare’s plays and narrative poems in chronological order, starting with Henry VI (Parts 2, 3 and 1) and ending with Two Noble Kinsmen. Impressive, I thought, but not quite The Complete Works. Using the method of loci (a memory strategy devised in Ancient Greece where images are mentally stored in an imagined building – see the NAWE article ‘The Old Man in the Attic’), plus a bit of focus and practise, I reckoned I could manage that myself.

But then things got a little more complicated. Peter invited an audience member to the stage and handed her a battered copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

‘Pick a page between 15 and 700,’ he said, explaining that this eliminated the introductory notes and index pages. ‘Tell me the page number and I’ll tell you the first word on that page.’

This was the spectacle my friend had raved about. Page numbers were turned to at random. Without fail, Peter recalled the first word on each and every one. Now this was impressive. And definitely not something I was about to try at home.

Then he took things even further. Peter asked the page-picker to choose the first or second column on any given page and decide if they wanted the first or last word.

‘Page 240, first column, first word.’

‘Married.’

‘Page 471, second column, last word.’

‘Mouse.’

‘Page 654, first column, last word.’

‘Weapon.’

After several increasingly rapid-fire demonstrations of this memory stunt, the entire audience was at the jaw-dropped-open-in-amazement point.

But still, there was more.

It turned out that, not only could Peter recall individual words from any page and column, but, as he went on to demonstrate in a final flourish of memorizing brilliance, he could also recite complete lines from every page. It appeared that my friend was right. Here was a man who had actually memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Later I met Peter at a café and was immediately struck by his genuine enthusiasm and passion for all things connected with memory, performance and, in particular, Shakespeare. As well as being a magician, he is also a highly respected actor, director and writer, and has performed in numerous productions with the BBC, the Sheffield Crucible Theatre and the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory Company, amongst others.

When I asked whether he had in fact memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare he smiled and explained that ‘this effect involves five different memory systems’, including a pegging system – using numbers to mentally hook images; a linking system – making connections between a series of images; and the method of loci, or memory palace. He also uses a mnemonic system in which he changes numbers into images and links these to things he wants to remember. ‘This is a very old system for memorizing that has been used in different ways. We are visual creatures. We remember images better than words.’

So the answer is, yes and no.

But, interestingly, these mnemonic tools that Peter has so thoroughly mastered are not strategies he uses when actually performing Shakespeare.

‘When I learn pieces as an actor, and poems in fact, I’ll always go for what’s beneath the words. What are the images? What are the emotions? What am I trying to communicate? If you can work that out, that gives you a core feeling and you’re much more likely to remember that than just random shapes – words. Don’t try to remember just the words.’

He says that when it comes to learning a poem by heart, understanding the meaning of the work is vital. ‘It’s an intellectual process of spending time with the poem and understanding it. I’ll look at the verse structure, the rhythm, assonance, alliteration – all those things that the poet will have used.’ He also says it’s important to ‘discover what your own personal, individual emotional connection to the poem is. That’s the story you tell.’

Almost simultaneous to this understanding comes a process of making a physical connection with the words. He suggests whispering the lines ’so you get the sounds of the consonants. Then take the vowels out for a while.’ Next he might ‘take the consonants out and just speak the vowels, to get the emotional sound – the emotion seems to come through the vowels more than the consonants.’

The way to learn a poem by heart Peter suggests, is not through memory palaces or any of the strategies that he might use in his magic shows, but through ‘practice, practice, practice. Do it over and over again. Once you know what you’re trying to communicate, the words will be there and you won’t have to think about them.’

He argues that the memorizing process happens naturally when you spend focused time with a poem. ‘If you put in the time to work on the poem first, to find out what’s happening, then you find that you’re already learning it.’ He reaches a moment ‘when you’re not thinking about the words on the page. You’re embodying the words as though you’re talking to someone. You have this emotion you want to share and you use the poem to communicate that.’

Ultimately, though, he says there is no short cut to learning a poem by heart. ‘The real key is ‘workman-like graft! Learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines.’

It seems the real trick to poetry and recitation is less to do with mnemonics and more to do with getting to know the words intimately, discovering the emotional truth beneath the lines and finding a way to deliver them that is truly your own.

And, as we know from the best Poetry By Heart performances, that’s where the real magic happens.

 

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The Ear Is The Best Reader

24th February 2017

As Robert Frost once said, ‘the ear is the best reader’ and it is on this philosophy that The Poetry Archive was founded.

After meeting in a recording studio, Sir Andrew Motion (UK Poet Laureate 1999 – 2009) and the recording producer Richard Carrington, agreed how enjoyable and illuminating it is to hear poets reading their work and how regrettable it was that in the twentieth century many important poets had not been properly recorded. Major poets such as Hardy, Housman, Lawrence had never been recorded at all, and now that opportunity was lost forever.

Launched in 2005, the Poetry Archive now offers a free resource of national and international significance which has at its heart a belief in the profound insights that come from hearing poets’ own readings of their work.

From www.poetryarchive.org you can access and listen to the world’s premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their own work. The Archive exists to make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to as wide audience as possible so alongside freely accessible recordings and a wealth of background information and materials, the Poetry Archive continues to develop new ways to provide teachers with the support they need. We have a range of exciting plans in the pipeline for 2017 and if you would like to get involved, or benefit from special offers and priority news on projects and developments, or simply hear our latest news, please subscribe to our teachers newsletter here.

We want you to love exploring our Poets and collections and we will continue to develop resources with teachers’ needs in mind:

MyArchive: The MyArchive feature of our website allows you to create your own account and bookmark collections and recordings that you would like to quickly and easily return to later, creating bespoke lessons and streaming collections as and when you are ready. There is no limit to the number of collections you can create, or how long you can keep them – they will be saved and ready as you need them.

Classroom Collections: If you don’t need to keep your own collections ready using MyArchive, you can use one of our tailor made Classroom Collections, which have been curated with teaching in mind. Go to the Teach section of our website and you will find collections such as Gothic Poetry, WW1 Poetry and Caribbean Poetry alongside suggested Lesson Plans and Glossary terms.

Download Audio: Our collections are free where we are able to negotiate those rights with our Poets and publishers, but if you wanted to take poems further you can use our Download Store to purchase individual poems and load them onto other devices to play anytime. We have created specific GCSE teaching focused albums, such as, ‘Poems from the AQA GCSE Anthology’, ‘Poems from the Edexcel GCSE Anthology’ and ‘Power and Conflict (Poems from GCSE Anthologies)’ to support your activities.

We are delighted to continue to support Poetry By Heart and we hope you enjoy exploring our collections.

We look forward to sharing our future plans with you.

Tracey Guiry
Director
The Poetry Archive

Between 2013 and 2016 Poetry By Heart was the principal educational initiative of The Poetry Archive, developed with The Full English and supported by the Department of Education. It was co-founded by Andrew Motion (Co-Director of The Poetry Archive) and Julie Blake ) Co-Director of The Full English and Education Director of The Poetry Archive) in February 2012.

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Poems, Pictures and Prophecy

14th March 2016

Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………..

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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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Spell Casting

16th December 2015

Malkin by Camille Ralphs  The Emma Press

Malkin by Camille Ralphs The Emma Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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The Power of Poetry For People With Dementia

2nd December 2015

Daffodil

Image courtesy of Feggy Art Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

(Gillian Clarke Collected Poems Carcanet 1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUTUMN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poetry By Heart – The Movie

19th November 2015

Hear From The Students from Poetry By Heart on Vimeo.

Here at Poetry By Heart Towers, it can occasionally be forgotten in the midst of various and deadly administrative and marketing tasks that come flying our way that it is only the workers at the coal face who make the competition possible. The teachers. The librarians. The parents. The students.

 

We spend a lot of our time talking to the teachers, the librarians and the parents…but naturally we don’t hear as much as we would like from the students until the county rounds.

And of course it is only at the national finals weekend, the frenzied and exhilarating three days in March, that we really spend any time getting to hear their story of how they approached the challenge, how they learned their poems, what drives them to do so and fundamentally what they have gained from Poetry By Heart. They are all of them without exception, a pleasure to speak to. Talented, bright, and like every teenager, with a genuine desire for their voice to be heard somehow.

Until the latter stages of the competition, from our office (third-floor of a converted townhouse in Bristol; the view from my window is a rainy street and constantly honking seagulls, if you were wondering) it’s difficult to imagine the student experience because we have nothing except names on a page of who has won this, or recited that. There isn’t much beyond anecdotal evidence.

So at the national finals at Homerton College, Cambridge, in March earlier this year, we were determined to do something about this. The video above this blog post contains the result. We worked with the great team at Dialogics (http://www.dialogics.com/) who have the peculiar skill of being able to appear in five places at once and whenever you need them. They have filmed recitations at three consecutive national finals and were briefed this year to interview as many students as possible, totally unscripted, all from different schools and different backgrounds to showcase the Poetry By Heart experience. Peter Osborn, long-time supporter of the project, was asking the questions and we left Cambridge with a good two hours of footage.

This, of course, left us with a lot of tricky decisions about what to cut out. And apologies if any students are watching who gave us a really great soundbite which didn’t make the cut. We assure you that we could have made five similar films from the footage we had! After two weeks of making choices, agonising over those choices and then editing, a video emerged.

So, all that I have left to say is please watch it! And please share it with everyone you possibly can who may be interested. Spread the word on social media. Put it in newsletters. Show it in classrooms. Show it in assemblies. Send it out into the world!

 

TOMAbout the Author:

Tom Boughen was born in Hull and now lives in Bristol, having worked in administration and marketing for Poetry By Heart for three years. He has a History MA from the University of Bristol, and wrote his thesis about Indian soldiers in the First World War. During his downtime over the summer he likes to go globetrotting, his 2015 jaunt taking him to the USA, Mexico and Cuba. In his spare time in Bristol, he likes to read, write, watch deliberately obscure films and is currently completing an open online course from the University of Alberta about dinosaurs.

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Australian Bush Ballads

11th November 2015

Image Courtesy of Al McKay Personal Collection

Image Courtesy of Al McKay Personal Collection

Australian Al McKay offers a personal reflection on the popularity and impact of the Australian Bush Ballad.

 

How can I take you, in a few words, to the very soul of my patriotism instilled by early Australian poets who so shaped my appreciation of this great island continent?  Poetry by Heart was the essence of my Primary School education; we all recited by rote, either in the schoolroom or at home.  On poets’ wings I was transported to worlds beyond my comprehension.  By the age of ten I had learned, not only of the “old Country’s” poets: Keats, Shelly, Byron and Tennyson but of those quintessentially Australian “Bush Balladists”, Lawson, Mackellar, Paterson, Gordon, Kendall and Anderson.

Their words are forever imprinted into my very being always offering satisfaction.  These early poets developed a style of narration that gained great popularity as they portrayed the early pioneers in their struggles to establish a European foothold on what was a hostile shore but one that they tamed to “take now the fruits of our labour…” (“Pioneers”, Frank Hudson).  Bush ballads became popular late in the 1800s and were published by a Sydney Newspaper, “The Bulletin”.  The poems could be humorous as in O’Brien:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,

In accents most forlorn,

Outside the church, ere Mass began,

One frosty Sunday morn” [1]

and they could be sad when Lawson tells of Harry Dale:

“Now Harry speaks to Rover,

The best dog on the plains,

And to his hardy horses,

And strokes their shaggy manes:

“We’ve breasted bigger rivers

When floods were at their height,

Nor shall this gutter stop us

From getting home tonight!”[2]

Alas poor Harry and Rover drowned! Some poems were evocative of a heritage dominated by England as MacKellar wrote,

“The love of field and coppice,

Of green and shaded lanes.

Of ordered woods and gardens

Is running in your veins,…..

I know but cannot share it

My love is otherwise”[3]

and presented a paradox to be pondered by writers many of whom had little knowledge of that semi-mythical “Bush”.

In like vein, Lawson embraced his different world in the South:

“You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle, and Rose,

Or the three in a bunch if you will;

But I know of a country that gathered all those,

And I love the great land where the Waratah grows,

And the Wattle-bough blooms on the hill.” [4]

But the “Bush” could be a reality for any who chose to mentally explore as does Cuthbertson “down the shadowy reaches” [5] or to commune with those dreaming urbanites like Paterson:

“And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle,

Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street”[6]

The Bush was a romantic almost fantasy world populated by strong, adventurous men on horseback as they battled “drought and flooding rains”[7]

Many ballads are set to a rhythm of galloping horses painting scenes of courageous action:

“He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,

He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,

And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –

It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride” [8]

Bush ballads used common words, were couched in simple rhymes and had little of classical reference.

Many poets expressed a perception of embryonic nationalism, a sense of being a new type of man removed from the constraints of his origins in Britain.  This ethos became popular towards the end of the nineteenth century as the federation of the Colonies into a Commonwealth became a reality.

The early poets came to this new Eden, a virtual paradise where every bird, animal, plant and indigenous peoples were completely unknown to them. Of course issues surrounding colonisation and the treatment of the Aborigine inevitably underpin any present day consideration of Bush poetry but as a young boy growing up I devoured the balladists appreciation of endless beaches, vast forests, deserts, mountains and plains. It was these Australian poets who taught me how to see.  When walking the shores of my youth, I learned from Kendall of:

“The silver-voiced bell-birds, the darlings of day-time,

They sing in September their songs of the May-time”[9]

In this poem he spoke of the different seasons in the South, “their songs of the May-time”, a reference to “Home”, that mythical ancestral Camelot set in England ten thousand miles and six months away.

Unbeknownst to me during those periods of reciting poetry by heart my perception of the nature of things was being enhanced giving me another depth and dimension of emotion.  It was May 1942. I was nine years old, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the war had come to Australia.  One morning I was sitting on a cliff overlooking the river that bounded my home engrossed with the  precision of two sea-eagles gliding in intersecting circles looking for quarry in the waters below when a flash of light drew my attention to squadrons of “War-birds”, fighters and bombers, marshalling in the sky above.  The aircraft came from the safe havens of airfields within a twenty mile radius of my home.  Those Kittyhawks, Hudsons and Beaufighters were freshly camouflaged in jungle green, dressed for their new role in the Pacific.  All were flying to the bases on our northern shores to fight the Enemy.  The analogy of these predators, these birds of prey, was not lost to me. But it was the pilots in their cockpits, new versions of my heroic horsemen, that I longed to join, to emulate and march to war accompanied by the familiar strains of Waltzing Matilda. [10]

Even today Lawson’s words:

“’tis Australia that knows, that her children shall fight while the Waratah grows,

And the Wattle blooms out on the hill”[11] are still ringing in my ears.

Adam Lindsay Gordon’s[12] “Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes” was published at the time of his death in 1870.  He is the only Australian poet whose bust stands in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. His poem, “The Swimmer” became a libretto for a work by Elgar. As he died on that beach his thoughts may have been with horses, those horses of his steeple chasing years:

“Oh! brave white horses! you gather and gallop,

The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins ;

Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop

In your hollow backs, on your high arched manes.”

In her Christmas speech of 1992  Queen Elizabeth quoted from his works:”Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in one’s own..” but failed to acknowledge the author.

Some of my ancestors came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 and it was these European pioneers who carved out our modern civilization. Hudson paints a picture of men at work in the forests to which I relate for all are similar to so many photographs in my family albums.

“Our axes rang in the woodlands,

Where the gaudy bush-birds flew,

And we turned the loam of our new-found home,

Where the eucalyptus grew.”

Sometimes, when looking at my grandchildren, I think as he did:

“Take now the fruit of our labour,

Nourish and guard it with care,

For our youth is spent, and our backs are bent.

And the snow is on our hair.”[13]

when I consider my own mortality

That our nation was forged with unequalled endurance is unquestioned; that our children will grow with the wisdom instilled by learning poetry by heart that has stood me in good stead is arguable but initiatives like the UK’s Poetry By Heart suggest a new generation might once again engage with a very old idea.

To conclude with Australian memories it was a woman, Maybanke Anderson, who penned a stirring testimony to Australian men:

”A sturdy gift was the Ironbark

To the men who built Australia.

Walls and roof for the homes they made,

While the billy boiled and the children played,

Rest and peace in the leafy shade,

Love of the gum tree ne’er shall fade

From the mem’ry of Australia.” [14]

References

[1] John O’Brien 1878-1952 Said Hanrahan.

[2] Henry Lawson 1877-1922 Ballad of the Drover.

[3] Dorothea MacKellar 1885-1968 My Country.

[4] Henry Lawson Waratah and Wattle.

[5] James Lister Cuthbertson  1893 The Australian Sunrise.

[6] “Banjo” Paterson 1864-1941 Clancy of the Overflow.

[7] Dorothea Mackellar 1885–1968 My Country.

[8] “Banjo” Paterson The Man from Snowy River.

[9] Henry Kendall 1839-1882  Bell Birds.

[10] A B “Banjo” Paterson 1895 Waltzing Matilda.

[11] Henry Lawson  Waratah and Wattle.

[12] Adam Lindsay Gordon 1870 Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes.

[13] Frank Hudson  “Pioneers” The Songs of Manly Man and other Verses”, London 1908.

[14] Maybanke Anderson 1845-1927  To the Iron Bark.

PBH Al About the author: Al McKay was born on a farm in a remote part of Tasmania 82 years ago. His tertiary education was in  Sydney and London.  Primarily he is an eye surgeon and lecturer but concurrently has followed careers as an officer and consultant to the RAAF, a cattle farmer, a landscape gardener and a yachtsman whilst still finding time to write.

He has written memoirs on surgical technology and of his youth serving as an infantryman.He has authored and produced a surgical DVD. He has had the same wife for almost 60 years.  Little would have been achieved without her.

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Contemporary Approaches to Poetry

21st October 2015

Image from 'I Amir' by Nisha Bhakoo

Image from ‘I Amir’ by Nisha Bhakoo

Writer and video artist Nisha Bhakoo explores her own response to poetry as both reader and writer.

 

I believe that honesty and courage are the most important things when writing poetry and that is probably true as regards the act of taking a poem to your heart and sharing it with others. It’s hard when you are first starting out as a poet because it’s natural to feel insecure about your work and to attempt to write like other poets. When I first started writing poetry, I spent a lot of time thinking about impressive words that I could slot into my poems. It was completely forced and I didn’t recognise myself in any of the work. I think that with time you understand that for a poem to work, you can’t write it for anybody but yourself. You have to write it in your own unique language and write about things that matter to you. Don’t worry about how others will respond to it; write about something that you would like to read. Every writer plays with language, form, imagery, and rhythm in different ways – the diversity of voices keeps poetry interesting and relevant.

You need courage as a writer because you are opening yourself up to scrutiny. Even the act of pursuing a career in writing is a courageous one because there are people who for all kinds of reasons will try to discourage you. I’m not saying that writing isn’t an insecure career, it is! You still need to make money and you will have to make many sacrifices, but in my opinion, it’s worth it. I have done everything from working at the council to teaching English to German kids to pay the bills, and I will continue to find ways whereby I can support my career. You have to be creative with that also.

The reader has to have courage and honesty as well. Your interpretation and opinion of a poem is worth a lot, and you don’t have to share the same interpretation as a critic, your teacher, or even the poet! Like music, there are no wrong or right answers in poetry. I think that one of the many reasons people are put off poetry is because they’re scared that they will get it wrong. Michael Rosen recently tweeted “Poets don’t know all the meanings of their poems. All the meanings of the poems are made by the poet and the readers”. I couldn’t agree more. The poet doesn’t seal the poem down after she’s finished writing it – it’s very much a two way street.

I have found that the people who harp on about poetry being dead usually haven’t read any poetry from the last few decades. There are so many exciting things going on with poetry at the moment. I’m especially enjoying the work of Emily Berry http://www.emilyberry.co.uk/ and Richard Siken http://www.richardsiken.com/. You have probably heard of them but if not Google them right away!

The Poetry By Heart competition is a fantastic way of getting young people into poetry. It shakes off the tired stereotypes of poetry being dull and only for the older generation. Through the competition, the young person reflects on the poem and recites it in a way that makes sense to them. This requires both honesty and courage because when you recite a poem by heart, there is no barrier between you and the audience. I’m sure this is an exhilarating experience and it is definitely a dynamic introduction to poetry.

Many contemporary poets have started using performance, sound and film in their work and it’s inspiring to see all the new ways that people are choosing to share their poems.

I decided to attempt to make a short poetry film last year. I have a passionate interest in video art, especially the work of Bill Viola and Gretchen Bender, so it seemed like a natural and rewarding thing to do. Through the B3 Media Talent Lab scheme, I managed to get some funding for the film. It’s called “I, Amir”, and it is an uncanny look at technology and identity. I didn’t write the poem specifically for the film. I chose it for “I, Amir” because it addressed the psychoanalytical themes that I wanted to explore. I don’t feel that the film enhances the poem but it does offer up something new to think about. Seeing poetry off the page also makes you question what poetry really is.

Poetry films and performance can also make poetry more accessible and draw in non-traditional audiences, which is fantastic because I think poetry is for everybody. This is why I think the Poetry By Heart competition is so powerful because it involves the young person and makes them an active participant.

I don’t think that poetry performance and films threatens the word on the page. I will always read poetry books because I enjoy reading poems at my own pace, being alone with them, and seeing their form on paper. I know that a lot of people out there don’t own or read poetry books but poetry is still part of their everyday life. Everyone from the hip hop fan to the headline writer at your local paper has a relationship with poetry. Poetry comes in many guises from a diversity of voices – it just isn’t always labelled as poetry.

 

Photo: Chris Schulz

Photo: Chris Schulz

About the author: Nisha Bhakoo is a writer and video artist. Her poetry has appeared in Poems in Which (Issue 8), Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Cadaverine, and Morphrog 11, and she is featured in the upcoming Mildly Erotic Verse by The Emma Press. She was shortlisted for Cambridge University’s Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2015, and selected for the GlogauAIR artist residency scheme, Berlin, in 2015. She has performed her work at a variety of venues in the UK and Germany. Her poetry film “I, Amir” (supported by B3 Media) will be exhibited at Rich Mix, London, from 24 Nov. to 5 Dec. 2015. You can find out more here: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/i-amir-by-nisha-bhakoo/

 

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‘A Momentary Stay Against Confusion’

7th October 2015

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright’. 

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

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all –’

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

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

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin’.

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

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

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

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

 

Rachel Kelly Colour High Res About the author

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

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Poetry Comics

24th June 2015

 

Image courtesy of paulktunis.com

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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‘Fifty Poems’ at Lucy Cavendish College – University of Cambridge

11th April 2015

Lucy Cavendish College Library

In Michaelmas Term 2012, three second year English students decided to put together a compilation of poems by female writers to celebrate the literary achievements of women. Hannah Schühle-Lewis, Kassi Chalk and Charlotte Quinney were the three students and, after their final year exams, they were able to make their idea a reality, as part of the celebrations for Lucy Cavendish College’s 50thanniversary. The aim of this project: www.lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/fiftypoems was to not only celebrate the poetic achievements of women, both in and outside the literary canon, but also to foreground the range of voices which constitute our College community. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to this fantastic project which, in many ways, reflects the ideals and purpose of the ‘Poetry by Heart’ scheme.

As the only Higher Education College for women over 21 in Europe, all the students at Lucy have vastly differing experiences.  The minimum age of 21 means that even the youngest must have some ‘life experience’ before coming to the College for their education. This is one of the greatest things about College life here – every person has a different story to tell. This is borne out by the readings of the various poems which are the speaker’s natural interpretation of the words, rather than a practiced, or artificial performance. Although several English students contributed, a literary background was not a requirement for involvement in the project – just an interest in poetry and a willingness to lend a voice to the words on the page. Whilst several of the poems were by familiar authors, such as Christina Rossetti or George Eliot, others were written by students, like Charlotte Quinney and Heather Hind, as well as Gill Saxon, who works in our College library.  By having a selection of both traditional and modern, ‘Fifty Poems’ performed a similar function to ‘Poetry by Heart’, in showing how poetry is a living, vibrant medium of expression, not just a page in a textbook.

My own route to Lucy in 2011 was via deferred entry; I received the offer when I was 19 because I would be 21 in October 2012 and so eligible for admission.  In the intervening time, I worked and travelled for six months. This experience dramatically influenced the person I am today.  After I graduate this year, I hope to develop a career in International Development, an interest which originated from my trip around South Africa. This will be a little different from reading the greatest works of English literature, but one of the fantastic things about my degree is that the vast range of texts I’ve read have become as much a part of me as any other experience – and I don’t necessarily need to carry them all with me on my future travels! As the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project demonstrates, writing is all about individuals experiencing and exploring universal emotions: love, anger, frustration, doubt, hope, joy. In the words of Marianne Moore: ‘if you demand on the one hand the raw material of poetry, and that which is on the other hand genuine, you are interested in poetry’. The vocalisation of poetry makes both this rawness and honesty of emotion accessible. Some of my closest friends declare a positive fear of Shakespeare – as do many GCSE students, no doubt – and, on the page, it does look rather formidable. But, if you watch any accomplished actor of our day on the stage, speaking the verse (from David Tennant to Judi Dench) the meaning becomes immediately apparent from their intonation and expression. Even the most inaccessible speech of Hamlet’s appears comprehensible as performers communicate their understanding of the character through the language on the page. Just as the actors on stage bring vitality to the poetry, so too do the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project and ‘Poetry by Heart’; they all show how the same poem takes on a different shade of meaning when vocalised by a new individual.

I was delighted to be invited to the final of ‘Poetry by Heart’ on the 21st March. Each of the finalists performed to an exceptionally high-standard – I did not envy the judges in trying to select a winner. It was great to hear some old favourites, like John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ and Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, but even with those familiar poems, it felt like I was experiencing them for the first time. The poems really gained an added dimension, denied them on the page, especially with the callousness and vindictive nature of the voice in the Browning. The wrapping of Porphyria’s hair around her neck became all the more powerful as the speaker maintained the same tone throughout, even when describing how passionately the victim loved her yet unknown murderer. Many of the finalists chose a poem which they’d previously selected from the 1914-1918 period and they were all incredibly moving. A favourite of mine was Rose Macaulay’s ‘Picnic’, which I had not known of before. www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/picnic/. The reciter created a perfect balance between the beauty of the Downs and the violence of the guns at the Front. Many audience members tweeted about the power of the voices, and the goose bumps and tears were felt by everyone. One tweet spoke about the performances being a fitting tribute to all those who had fallen. It was amazing how these young students brought to life with tremendous power those vivid and horrific poems, reminding us that those soldiers’ sacrifice will never be forgotten by each passing generation.

At the core of ‘Poetry by Heart’ and Lucy Cavendish’s ‘Fifty Poems’ Project  is a desire to demonstrate what is great about poetry – not only its orality, but the individual readings that it encourages. In its earliest traditions, poetry was intended to be spoken, so that those who were unable to read were still able to participate in the experience of listening and hearing the stories of the great heroes of the past. Hundreds of years on, these initiatives restore this original purpose in appealing to the ear to entice the reader in. I hope in our collection, you can find at least one poem that draws your attention. I hope too that you follow your ears and enjoy the journey through new, or old, favourites.

About the author: Elinor George is from Cardiff in Wales. 23 years old, she is a third year English student at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Before coming to University, she took two gap years, which included a self-funded 6 months of travel to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. As well as travelling, her hobbies also include going to the theatre and rowing. Elinor has rowed for her College’s first boat since her first year at Lucy. One of her favourite novelists is Jane Austen which is fortunate as her parents named her after Miss Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.

 

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First Lines

31st March 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Poetry By Heart and a View from Russia

20th February 2015

Mariano Mantel – Kremlin seen from the Patriarchal Bridge Creative Commons

Moscow State Institute of International Relations student, Nellie Olphert, offers some thoughts on the fate of poetry and memorisation in Russia.

 

‘…And with the human race anew

I am family through you.’

‘My Journey’ by Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (1902-1991)

 In Russian by heart  is naizust which roughly means “coming from the lips”. I would say that the etymology carries an implication of words emerging from the depths of one’s personality. And memorised verse does, figuratively speaking, become dissolved in one’s blood, ideally merging with its new “owner”.

The reproduction of such cultural phenomena halts when the social demand for them falls. When a society stops memorising poetry, the latter ceases to appear and exist in the way it used to and could. In Russia the vitality of rhyme, metre or vers libre never really faded, and even less so – the mnemonic culture. It is partly the result of the great tradition of the so-called Russian ‘literature-centrism’.

Formed only towards the close of the XVIII century, Russian secular poetry is relatively young (oral folk tradition is yet another story). Its Golden age was seen at the beginning of the XIX century. Back then poetry was at the heart of things; both a craze and a blessing, it led to verse memorisation piercing all spheres of life, public and private: from nursery rooms and finishing schools to grand saloons and ballrooms. It mirrored the entire palette of human emotions and currents of thought. That meant endless reading and creating, sharing in friendship albums, declamation amongst friends and in public, quoting and recognising quotations in everyday speech, since memorised poetry is also a socially significant recognition symbol: of likeness, unity, learning, etc. Poets were, in the words of Alexander Pushkin, the “rulers of minds”. Numerous forbidden (most commonly for political reasons) texts circulated on scraps of paper in pencil and were instantaneously memorised and spread onwards. Before the Decembrist uprising Pushkin’s unpublished verses continued to exist in the minds of just about every insurrectionist. The interest for poetry during the ensuing years resembles a sine wave up to the October revolution when a “flip” of the social strata occurred and an entire unique class of people was swept away – an irretrievable loss.

Young Pushkin taking his first exam before the great poet Derzhavin (1815)

The Bolsheviks at first proclaimed learning by heart a form of bourgeois oppression, but soon the “right” poems were selected, that is, those containing criticism of the tsarist absolute monarchy. Many of them were the very ones prohibited during the XIX century. Literature in the Soviet times was one of the most important subjects at school, present in the schedule from the first to the last year, and learning verse by heart was its part and parcel. Though phrases from popular films were an infinitely greater part of the vernacular, children throughout the country could be heard bantering with each other using crammed excerpts from verse and prose, and any girl that finished eight classes of a Soviet school could recite Tatiana’s letter (“Eugene Onegin”) from memory and not forget her lines after the first quatrain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6_kyjggnwLU

Both the dominant and the dissident cultures used verse as a weapon in the battle for human minds. It is a double edged weapon, since truly great poetry is what Umberto Eco called an “open work”: an invitation to collaborate, to activate the potential of one’s cogitative faculties to the limit. Memorised poetry creates the “citadel of the mind” which, in my subjective opinion, happens to be its vocation and most genuine form of existence.

The penalty for the diffusion of forbidden texts became incomparably harsher than it was in the tsarist days. As a result, literature, and poetry in particular due to its inherent characteristics, became of an exceptional value – life was at stake. The story of Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem “Requiem” is very characteristic. (Her poem  In Memoriam, July 19, 1914 can be read in the Poetry By Heart First World War showcase – http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/)  The first “drafts” of ‘Requiem’ were created as Akhmatova spent seventeen months, day after day, waiting in prison queues in Leningrad after her son was arrested by the secret police; one day a woman behind her whispered:  ‘Could one ever describe this?’ and Akhmatova answered, ‘I can.’ But she had to keep it locked in her head for around 25 years before she allowed herself to trust paper with it.

Kuzma_Petrov-Vodkin.Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1922) Public Domain 

The mémoires of former GULAG inmates contain numerous testimonies of poetry’s significance for human survival – for the preservation of mental health and the private inner world, since the sole space of freedom that is undividedly one’s own lies in the mind. The mnemonic nature of poetry gives its “possessor” the sensation of freedom and at times even of independence from life’s vicissitudes. GULAG camps were in a sense the best poetry school – no-one would commit your verse to memory if they sensed a single false note. The first anthology of GULAG prisoners’ poetry was published in 2005.

Evgenia Ginzburg in her book ‘Journey into the Whirlwind’ describes the first meeting with her son – the future writer Vasily Aksyonov – since his arrest: ‘I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us…Now I understand what a Mother is – you can recite your favourite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left of.’

Today poetry surrounds most of us from our very birth, here and there on different levels, so memorising at times is really recalling or putting lines together. That also has to do with Russian literature’s high level of intertextuality. And once it’s learnt it’s quite impossible to forget. Our greatest poets captured things most vital and stirring in ingenious ways; these thoughts and means of expressing them are profoundly Russian (or rather they actually shaped and formulated what Russian truly is and should be…) and at the same time universally existential.

 

A Ukrainian and a New Zealander by descent, Nellie Olphert was born in Moscow in 1994. She is currently studying international journalism and public relations at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and will be graduating later this year with a thesis on dissident media in the Soviet Union.

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The 3 Rs: Rhythm Rhyme and Recitation

13th November 2014

Photo by Fay Lofty

I am in the extremely fortunate position of working with teenagers for a job and so initially when invited to contribute to the Poetry By Heart blog I thought I’d write a piece about teenagers and poetry.   Just recently, however, I have had conversations with three people at different points on the great spectrum of life and a common theme emerged in our conversations which took me to the heart of Poetry By Heart. I have had the delights of conversing about poetry with a pre-schooler, a teenager and an octogenarian and this is what I learned.

 

Let’s reverse the natural order of things and consider the octogenarian first.  Belinda read English Literature at Cambridge University during the Second World War and today, in what some people might foolishly consider her dotage, is the sharpest mind I know.  Her greatest solace is her mind’s ability to recall Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Frost and Donne when her body fails her and this, she argues, is the reason her brain is still fighting fit when other parts are less so. Not just lines but entire poems come back to her as easily as my mobile phone number comes back to me.  She uses this ability now to connect to people and to give them an insight or frame of reference for her world.  Reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 71 in its entirety with its ear-catching iambic pentameter and powerful half-rhyming couplet to end, gives her comfort and leaves her audience wanting another poem and in no doubt as to the state of her mind.

Going to the middle of the spectrum takes us to a delightful young man, spoken word poet and playwright, Tommy Sissons who has just finished his A Levels and is about to go to university.  Interested in what teenagers find engaging about poetry, I asked Tommy to tell me why he loves poetry and this was his reply:  ‘I came to love poetry almost purely through the form of it being spoken. I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry but I find personally that you can connect with verse so much more when it’s performed out loud. You can appreciate the rhythm of the words and the emotions behind the poem a lot more.  A lot of teenagers can see poetry as a dry, old-fashioned form of expression but they’ve only been taught the work of poets that have been dead for hundreds of years in vernacular that modern youth can’t always relate to. When they are presented with spoken word (in a modern form) it speaks to them. I know lots of people my age that have come to love poetry through spoken word.’  I found the genre of rap very hard to access and Tommy was the first person who managed to get me to understand and enjoy rap – which is, as he says, arguably the vernacular of teenagers and relies heavily on rhyme schemes, solid rhythms and being made audible. Poetry By Heart may be occupying a slightly different space in the performance of poetry but it recognises and celebrates the acoustic quality of poetry.

My final conversation was with a four year old and was about the delights of the Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.  I asked this small person what her favourite poem was and she trotted forward with a mauled copy of Donaldson’s book.  We read it together (twice), both enjoying the familiar cadences of a much-loved and familiar work.  I noticed that while I was reading, her lips were moving and asked her how much of the book she could remember.  She could recall nearly all of it with a few prompts which were related to the rhyming pattern.  When I asked her what she loved about it and why she’d chosen it as her favourite, after some consideration she replied, ‘it’s like dancing, only with words.’ And maybe whether we’re eight, eighteen or eighty that’s what we are doing when we get up and recite a set of words in our head – we’re dancing with words.

About the author

Fay Lofty works full-time as a Widening Participation Officer at the University of Brighton on an outreach programme with young people.  She has a BA (Hons) in Literature from The Open University and is currently doing an MA in Education at the University of Sussex.  In any time considered ‘spare’ she reads and tries to write.  She also runs a bookclub in the very small rural Sussex village where she lives and encounters many other inspirational readers and writers.  She has two daughters.

 

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National Poetry Day and Poetry By Heart

17th October 2014

James reciting at the Poetry Podium in Bristol

National Poetry Day on October 2nd saw members of the Poetry By Heart team hit the road in search of some poetry inspired adventures. Poetry pilgrims Alison Powell, Kath Lee and Tom Boughen share some tales below.

 

Alison Powell (Regional Development Coordinator for the South West) organised an innovative “Poetry Podium” event in Bristol.

 The (Loud) Sound of Sense

How do you make a three-year-old, a distant relative of Andrew Marvell and a retired dancer from Bristol happy?  By giving them the chance to read poetry in public apparently.  To celebrate this year’s National Poetry Day the South West contingency of PBH came up with the Poetry Podium, a flash-mob-style, open-air event in which members of the public were encouraged to join us on College Green in Bristol and read their favourite poem out loud.  And by loud, I mean really loud.  As in, through a megaphone loud!

Robert Frost claimed that poetry has a ‘sound of sense’ and can ‘communicate through its sound even before we grasp its semantic meaning.’  The sound of poetry blasting across the city centre’s favourite picnicking spot brought smiles, laughter and, when Keith Walker read his eulogy to his wife and dance partner, a few poignant tears.  Tim Popple, director of music at Bristol Cathedral, delighted us with ‘Bermudas’, chosen because of his relation to poet Marvell.  And three-year-old Autumn sang to us that famous 19th century poem ‘The Star’ by Jane Taylor (aka ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’).

People came from all over town to take part and to listen in a true testament to the power of poetry spoken aloud.  (Alison Powell)

Autumn aged 3 reciting at the poetry podium in Bristol with a little help from MC Faye Dicker

 

Tom Boughen (Poetry By Heart Project Assistant) enjoyed the Foyle Young Poets awards and a poetry extravaganza at the Southbank Centre in London

On the last two National Poetry Days, I have found myself at a celebration in the heart of London, hobnobbing with a group of talented and passionate people. Last year we launched Poetry By Heart on National Poetry Day (within a week of me starting this job!) This year I travelled down to the Southbank Centre in London with Julie Blake the co-director of Poetry By Heart for the Foyle Young Poets awards and subsequent poetry readings. It was a celebration of both young and established poets, with classic and contemporary styles.

I won’t lie; the Foyle group of youngsters made me feel very old! The young poets had been selected from thousands of entries from around the world and the fifteen deserving winners read their work at the awards. I’ve got a decade on most of them and the level of maturity and sophistication in their poems surprised me. It’s given me a strong reminder that I should no longer be amazed by the talent of teenagers, especially after working with Poetry By Heart! We’re well aware that lots of our PBH students also have a talent for writing, and it would be great to see some familiar faces at the Foyle Young Poets awards in the future.

One of the best things about the day was the encouragement of children and teenagers to engage in poetry. Local schools were invited to listen to readings by John Hegley, Julia Donaldson (writer of the classic ‘The Gruffalo’), and some cool contemporary poets like Hollie McNish, Dizraeli, Ross Sutherland, Raymond Antrobus and Joelle Taylor. They understood their audience, and some of the children watching seemed young enough for this to be their first poetry reading. I’ve come to realise over the past year that one of the biggest challenges facing the world of poetry is convincing the public that it can speak for everybody and challenge conventional thought in the same way that people readily accept other forms of literature can do. Involving children in these kinds of events is an excellent way of conveying from a young age the fact that poetry is universal, whether communicated on the page or in spoken word. That’s National Poetry Day for you!

(Tom Boughen)

Winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award 2014. Photograph:copyright @ Hayley Madden – Courtesy of the Poetry Society http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/

 

Kath Lee (Poetry By Heart Project Coordinator) navigated the magnificent new Library of Birmingham for the launch of the Poetry By Heart anthology and a memorable evening in the company of poet Jackie Kay.

What better way to spend the evening of National Poetry Day than in the company of the wonderful Jackie Kay? Mike Dixon, (Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the South East) and I accepted the kind invitation from our friends at Writing West Midlands to the opening event of this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival. It also marked the launch of the Poetry By Heart Anthology.

The best poetry readings are like the best first date; you get all the best stories, a few revelations and wittiest repartee. Jackie’s poems are also populated by a wide variety of voices, so by the end of the evening you’ve also been introduced to the family.  Jackie read mainly from her 2011 collection ‘Fiere’ and those poems are optimistic and cheery, even when addressing the complexities of families and her own less than ordinary personal history. She also read our PBH timeline and anthology choice, ‘Dusting the Phone’ which we loved, but she says she is mystified at its selection from all her work. We’re not sure we had the poets in mind when we suggested people ‘Argue with the Anthology’, but why not? Her Question and Answer session was a happy blend of thoughtful reflection on her writing process and fond recollections of her childhood, and giggling. All this, and her generous praise of the new anthology, meant that by the end of the evening we were completely smitten!  (Kath Lee)

Library of Birmingham: Photographer: Bruce Stokes https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode

 

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Is there a poem in your head?

3rd October 2014

The nationwide Poetry and Memory survey launched on 2nd October, UK National Poetry Day. The survey is part of the Cambridge University’s Poetry and Memory Project, which is investigating experiences of poetry learning, and examining the relationships between memorisation, recitation and understanding. David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger of the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University have been very interested in the work of Poetry By Heart and some of the research undertaken as part of their Cambridge Poetry Teaching Project appears in the Resources section of the Poetry By Heart website. Project Researcher Dr Debbie Pullinger tells us about this new and exciting Poetry and Memory Project.

 

Do you have a poem in your head? Then do come and tell us about it. It can be any poem, and any type of poem – we just ask that it isn’t a song lyric or a nursery rhyme.

There have been quite a few poetry polls over the years, mostly directed at finding the nation’s favourites. Our aim, however, is rather different. We want to discover what poems people know by heart – what poetry resides in our collective memory, at this moment, in October 2014. To the best of our knowledge, this is first time a survey of this kind and scope has been attempted.

As well as asking what the poem is and when you learned it, we’re also asking a couple of open-ended questions about what it means for you. The important thing here is that we’re emphatically not looking for GCSE English answers, or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’. Rather, we want to know about the personal significance of this particular poem. This might be to something do with the meaning, but it could also be to do with the sound. It may be that there’s one line which is particularly special. It may be that how you understand or feel about the poem has changed over the years.  It may be that you associate the poem with a particular occasion or period of your life. Or, it could be that the poem you know actually has very little meaning or significance for you at all – and we want to know about that, too.

Straight off, we expect to be able to announce what poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation. It will be interesting, too, to see how they map on to those favourites lists. But aside from producing a headline top ten, there’s a great deal more that we’ll be able to do with this data.  We’ll be able to investigate, for example, the reasons why people now learn poetry, and the perceived value of doing so. We’re particularly interested in questions about the ‘use’ of learned poems – how they might act as an emotional resource, contribute to a sense of identity, assist in the development of an ear for language, engender a sense of community, play a role in memories of a personal or communal past. What does knowing a poem mean for someone, and indeed what different things does it mean for different people?

We’re really looking forward to seeing the responses to the survey and sharing the results. But, of course, its success as a piece of research hangs on getting a good response – which means we need lots of people to take part. So we really do need your help. You can do this in two ways.

Take part in the survey – if you have a poem in your head, please come and tell us about it. http://www.poetryandmemory.com/

 

Spread the word –  even if you don’t know a poem yourself, do pass the word on to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. I should also mention that it will be possible for print out a copy of the survey to give to anyone unable to access it online. They can then post it back to us using the Freepost address.

You can get spreading any way you fancy. Phone a friend. Find us on Facebook (The Poetry and Memory Project). Tweet on Twitter: @poetryandmemory #poetryandmemorysurvey.  Print a poster and display it on your favourite notice board.

Whatever you can do, we’ll be enormously grateful.

The survey runs from 2nd–31st October and is open to anyone in the UK aged 18 or over. For more about the survey and the Poetry and Memory Project: www.poetryandmemory.com

image of staff member

Debbie Pullinger is the project’s full-time researcher, based in the Faculty of Education, where she also teaches on the Children and Literature course. Her doctoral project, completed in 2013, was on orality and textuality in poetry written for children. Debbie worked in primary teaching, in educational publishing, and as a freelance writer before returning to academia in 2009.

 

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Publishing Poetry

19th September 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony’s Desert Island Choices:

1)      ‘The Good Morrow’ John Donne

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

2)      ‘Dover Beach’ Matthew Arnold

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

3)      ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ Robert Browning

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

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

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

5)      ‘Skunk Hour’ Robert Lowell

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

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

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

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

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

8)      ‘Aubade’ William Empson

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

 

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

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Words and Music by Nick Freeth

5th September 2014

 

‘Hanging Guitars’ by Zeetz Jones

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sing of a maiden (Anon.)

Berkeley’s setting: Choir of Lincoln College, Oxford

Linden Lea (William Barnes)

Vaughan Williams’ setting: Bryn Terfel/Malcolm Martineau

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry (Christopher Smart)

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

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

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

 Other Britten songs:

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

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

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

Ballads:

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

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

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

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

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

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Will the real Helen Mackay please step forward?

17th August 2014

Library of Congress Reading Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie’s choices

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

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