Poetry by Heart
Editorial by Julie Blake and Tim Shortis
Poetry by Heart is a national poetry recitation competition for 14-18 year olds in England. Contestants compete in school-based competitions, county rounds, regional heats and a national final. The competition was launched in December 2012, funded by the Department for Education, and is now starting its third search, to find the 2015 national champion. The competition offers the challenge of serious fun to its many competitors from the thousand or more schools that have registered so far.
Poetry by Heart seeks to open up the ways in which people can enjoy and engage with poetry. It is an educational initiative of the Poetry Archive, the premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their own work, developed in association with the research-informed curriculum workshop, The Full English. The design and implementation reflect its development in close consultation with poets and writers, and with teachers, pupils, students and researchers. The website timeline of over 200 poems spanning a thousand years, one poem for each poet selected, with accompanying portraits, biographies, notes, recordings and links to the online Oxford English Dictionary, offers a way into reading and listening to poetry which has proved to be of value and interest to a web public not defined by nation, age or participant status.
Poetry by Heart has been funded for its first three years but whether it will come to have a life beyond this will depend on the discourses and practices it attracts as more people seek to engage with choosing, memorizing and reciting poems. We understood this at the start and worked with NAWE in devising and developing the first programme of professional development for teachers in 2013. This collaboration has now widened to include sessions for writers in education who wish to explore poetry, memorization and recitation, in a context where this has been made obligatory in primary school programmes of study. Without a lively professional debate, poetry memorization will be no more than a prescription of the curriculum, surviving only as it is enriched by extrinsic rewards or enforced by coercion. There would be little purpose in a special edition of this journal focusing on such a predicament.
As Catherine Robson has shown in her historical study of the practice, the memorization and recitation of poetry came to be of overwhelming importance in the teaching of what we would now call literacy. In the 19th century, it was a matter of national policy, curriculum obligation, testing and coercion, often by methods that would be deemed unacceptable today. The memorization and recitation of poetry have since become rare in England, though it is preserved in other cultural contexts and countries, such as through the national Eisteddfod in Wales and every Burns night in Scotland (and wherever Scots gather).
We are delighted to collaborate with NAWE to stimulate this timely and important professional debate. This special edition of Writing in Education has set out to gather together in one place a diverse range of ideas, views, experiences and perspectives on poetry memorization and recitation associated with the Poetry by Heart competition and beyond it. We wanted the edition to reflect the emergent nature of this knowledge. We wanted approaches to be eclectic and lively and to serve to open out the topic not narrow it into any particular groove. We have too much to learn from each other to reach any conclusions at this stage about how this discourse and its practices might best develop next.
What we do know is that Poetry by Heart has provided a focus for thinking about the place of poetry memorization and recitation in our lives. It’s not just an English thing: you will find news here of established competitions in the USA, Canada and Ireland. We know there is an annual competition in Jamaica and there are new pilot competitions developing in France and South Africa too. We dream of a poetry learning Commonwealth or Olympic games!
We know that poets value it as an act of building up a treasure-house of poems. Hughes and Heaney spoke substantially about its value, and Poetry by Heart has had very positive endorsements from poets as diverse as Alice Oswald, Simon Armitage, Lemn Sissay, Francesca Beard, Patience Agbabi and Daljit Nagra; our MCs have been Owen Sheers, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Roger McGough. In this special edition Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland, our judging panel chairs, and Glyn Maxwell, one of our judges, write about their connections with it. So too do poets Robert Hull and Maura Dooley, whose poem “Explaining Magnetism” was recited by our 2014 national champion, Matilda Neill.
We know that students and teachers enjoy it. Kaiti Soultana, 2013 national champion, describes her experience, drawing in the voices of other student participants. Kaiti’s teacher, Jane Bluett, describes how taking part in the competition has refreshed some of her practices.
We know that researchers working in poetry education are fascinated by it. We are delighted to have developed a close collaboration with Homerton College, Cambridge, and the Faculty of Education, three of whose members write here. Morag Styles, Professor of Children’s Poetry shares her experience of having been involved in the judging for two years. David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger’s Poetry and Memory project is investigating experiences of poetry learning, and examining the relationships between memorization, recitation and understanding. They write here on how we might discover sense through sound, and on some of the forgotten traditions of recitation.
Teachers in all sectors are starting to explore how poetry recitation and performance might help learning of different kinds. Here you will find reports on projects devised to test these ideas, from Amina Alyal at Leeds Trinity University and Josie Brady at Birmingham City University, while Gary Snapper shows what poetry enjoyment of this kind is up against in the A Level English Literature curriculum. Mike Dixon explores the decisions entailed in writing the biographies and commentaries that accompany the poems on the Poetry by Heart website, and what we hoped they might do for learning, while Antonia Pont reflects on kinds of deep learning and intelligence that learning poetry by heart might foster.
Poetry educators in a variety of other contexts are experimenting with memorization and recitation. Mario Petrucci gives us twelve approaches he has tried and tested in workshops. Alison Powell recovers ancient memorization traditions and tries them out on Year Seven pupils. Patrick Wildgust, Jonathan Davidson and Ed Reiss share their creative experiments too, working with poems by William Wordsworth, Peter Didsbury, Percy Shelley and with the anonymous grave marker for Laurence Sterne.
It is a rich and stimulating mixture of articles. We hope you will find much food for thought, debate and practice.
Julie Blake is the Education Director of the Poetry Archive and co-founder of Poetry by Heart. With Tim Shortis, she is also Director of The Full English thefullenglish.org.uk, a research informed curriculum workshop.
Tim Shortis is a lead member of the senior project development team of Poetry by Heart, with a particular focus on partnerships and professional dialogue. He is also a Director of The Full English.
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For a full list of contents, click on the image or the link below. NAWE members logged into the site can read the full articles. You can also browse the complete back catalogue of previous issues