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Poetry by Heart

Poetry by Heart is an initiative of the Poetry Archive with which NAWE was pleased to be involved during the pilot phase. It culminated in a Competition Final at the National Portrait Gallery in London, with Kaiti Soultana from Bilborough College in Nottingham (where NAWE Committee member Jane Bluett teaches) the highly deserving winner.

At the various Poetry by Heart Teacher Days that NAWE set up, it occurred to me how everyone (myself included) was taking on multiple roles: poets were teachers; teachers were students; students were poets; and everyone involved was above all a reader, venturing into new territory, willing to take risks.

Why risk? The answer lies in a simple fact. The tradition of memorizing and reciting poetry has largely died out, and even its heyday there was no real pedagogy, certainly no body of knowledge passed on that can offer us today any useful remnants of reflective practice. All we are left with is a sense that the learning was done by rote. Indeed, it is hard to present the process as anything else, hence the widespread resistance to the very concept when it re-appeared in the draft curriculum documents of 2012. Curriculum issues, however, can here be set aside, since Poetry by Heart has come at the concept from a different angle, offering an entirely voluntary means of engagement. Nevertheless, it was clear that some radical new thinking – and experiment – was needed in order to help teachers support those students who were themselves brave enough to get involved.

When the Teacher Days were devised, there were already some important educationalists involved, notably Morag Styles and Debbie Pullinger, both at Cambridge. The additional input came from contemporary poets, some of whom were at first reluctant to believe that the project was quite for them. The leading statements already made by Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, Simon Armitage et al, were however persuasive, and poets once again rose to the challenge of finding new ways to enthuse. For the literature organizations involved, it was an easier decision: here was a rare opportunity to run a national programme of events bringing teachers and writers together; it is one of our prime aims, too often elusive.

We were often asked if the project would be ongoing. It was a reasonable question, partly born of necessary pragmatism. Poets wanted to know if the preparations they would need to make might serve them well in the future. It actually clarified that they would not be rolling out some familiar workshop but working out how to tackle an entirely new task. It was explained that the sessions didn't need to focus exclusively on the competition, or even on the poems included in the anthology (timeline). The brief in the end was pretty free: the special, three-way relationship between poetry, sound and memory was key; based on that, any enriching activity for teachers and learners was encouraged.

Poets, needless to say, instinctively put the pleasure principle at the heart of their plans. It was interesting, however, to see how analysis of poetry still loomed large; analysis, that is, by any other name. Catherine Robson, in Heart Beats (reviewed on p72), describes how "moves towards discussion and analysis within the literature lesson served to make the conflicted relation between recitation and comprehension appear ever more awkward." One of the benefits, perhaps, of the death and resurrection of recitation, has been to ditch that conflict and see the two undertakings as more closely related after all. It is the starting points and visible results that differ. As John McAuliffe said at the Manchester workshop, "Here we have a way of engaging with poetry that is not writing essays". The engagement is still intense but the grasp of the poem derives from a less academic approach, perhaps more akin to a poet's own relish for his or her craft.

If poetry is memorable by design, then committing it to memory is surely a logical thing to do with it. Poets, in the workshops, were able to help teachers to explore the various patterning devices alive within poems, urging mouths and minds to get to grips with them, and for that grip to be sustained. It led to some highly technical discussions but all in the service of enabling poems to take hold, resonate to the full, and enable their meanings to unfold. This last point was stressed by all involved: to memorize a poem is not to nail it; you will get to know it intimately but not exhaustively. Reciting it, as Vona Groarke explained, is a similarly "open" undertaking. The reciter, like the poet, is encouraging metaphorical thought in the listener, passing the baton, so to speak.

Paul Munden




Katie Soultana, winner of the Poetry by Heart Competition, 2013




Read the review of Heart Beats published in Writing in Education No. 60.