Poetry is very much at the heart of Just Imagine’s activity. We regularly speak with poets for Our Evening With… event series, and the videos provide many perspectives on reading and writing poetry. There is one thing in common that all of these poets have in common, they didn’t write their poetry for the purpose of dissection. This is a theme picked up in our superb guest blog by Dr Julie Blake, Co-founder and Director of Poetry by Heart. Julie sets out the mission of Poetry by Heart and tells us about a brilliant resource and competition. There is much here to support teachers in celebrating poetry in the classroom. Do post a comment and let us know about your experiences, too.
Julie Blake, Co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart, explains the thinking behind the competition and how it was developed to give children, young people, and their teachers an enjoyable experience of poetry that starts with the intrinsic pleasure of poems.
She researches and writes about the history of poetry for children and creates digital and print anthologies of poems for children and young people.
Poetry by Heart is a competition and a website that treats poems as poems. If that seems self-evident, then we might think about the scenario described by Robert Hull.
What I suggest one …should… do with a poem is treat it as a poem. To treat a euphonium as a euphonium you play it; if you put flowers in it, it becomes a vase. You can do all kinds of things with a poem that avoid treating it as a poem. You can ‘analyse’ and anaesthetise it, or turn it into a comprehension exercise, or follow James Thurber’s Miss Groby, for whom collecting metaphors and similes and personifications was like ‘picking violets in springtime’. All such irrelevances can be fun, especially if one doesn’t greatly care for poems anyway’.Robert Hull
These acerbic comments by an experienced teacher, poet and poetry educator characterise what Robert Hull calls ‘the unhelpfully diversionary sets of National Curriculum injunction’ giving coverage of poetry, including the requirement to ‘consider the impact of full rhymes, half rhymes, internal rhymes and other sound patterns.’
The situation Hull observed continues to resonate with me some ten years after that version of the Primary National Curriculum, and the National Strategy was replaced by a shorter set of balder injunctions. Hull’s subtext is that there is a fear about poems and teaching them that can cause some teachers to sideline poetry to the irreducible minimum of legitimate coverage or teach it using ‘unhelpfully diversionary’ methods, which avoid treating a poem as a poem. The euphonium becomes a vase; fear of poetry displaces the poem.
Hull’s observations ring true with my experience of lesson observations conducted when I was working in my previous lives as a teacher of English, a member of a college Leadership Team and more recently as a PGCE Tutor at three universities in the SouthWest of England. It’s also been a starting point for me in my roles working in poetry education.
Poetry By Heart can be thought of as a response to the problem identified by Robert Hull, Ted Hughes, and many other poets mystified by what is done to poetry in schools, especially in the assessed curriculum. The competition represents an approach to poetry which encourages children to pay close attention to poems for their intrinsic pleasure: for their sunlit eloquence, their lunar mystery, their musicality, their line break shape on the page, and as heard in the air, to paraphrase what the poet Glyn Maxwell says better in his On Poetry. And those intrinsic properties include the peculiar relationship between poetry and memory. For example, the poet Alice Oswald observed that poems don’t just “go easily into the memory and stay there”; it works both ways – “the memory goes easily into a poem and grows there, perhaps infinitely.” The approaches underpinning Poetry By Heart originate in what poets told us about the nature of poems.
Then there is what happens to poetry in schools in the context where it is not unusual to hear a teacher of English or literacy admit: ‘I am not a poetry person’. In my education roles, I came to specialise in observing poetry lessons and the usual question that arose in the many sessions I observed – where was the poem in the room? Where was it as something heard and read and listened to with close attention? Hull describes the possibilities here:
‘The poem is a voice, a song to be heard, either as a literal voice speaking, or a voice creatively ‘heard’ in the reader’s head. Either way, you experience the poem; you take in the music of its words, the rhythms and cadences of the speaking voice that the poet transcribed to the page’.
More often than not, I observed poems being discussed before they’d been read carefully or aloud. Sometimes a recording was played, sometimes there was a hurried reading: a teacher, often the pupils. Everyone seemed in a hurry to get past the poem and onto the important stuff, like what it meant, as glossed in annotations, what it boiled down to, what features hung off it like decorations off a festive tree: simile, metaphor, rhyme schemes.
There are some caveats here. I was mainly observing secondary school teaching. And I was often observing student teachers learning their craft. I saw a small proportion of outstanding poetry lessons where the poem was present and more focal than its exegesis, often when the teacher had some first-hand enjoyment of poetry as a personal cultural practice. In other words, they had read and/or been read some poems for pleasure; they had some poets and poems they knew that weren’t set texts or previous set texts; they had kept up to date – at least a bit – with other poems and poets, perhaps on the radio; they attended occasional poetry readings, they tried writing poems from time to time. Sometimes the teachers had picked up these practices while following undergraduate studies; sometimes, it had been picked up from friends, families or serendipitous personal interest.
So how do you get to be ‘not a poetry person’. Surprisingly, prior experience of poetry in school and even in undergraduate studies appeared to be no guarantee of losing fear of poetry. It depended more on the teacher and teaching previously encountered, or in the case of Higher Education, the particular programme options chosen. Primary experts at CLPE who work with hundreds of Primary teachers on their outstanding Power of Poetry programme have shared with me their perception of the impact of GCSE poetry study on Primary teachers’ confidence. They suggest that these teachers’ previous experiences of GCSE methods prioritising literary analysis of a handful of poems appear not to prepare teachers to work with poetry in primary classes; they sometimes misled them because the teachers misconstrued what poetry is. To appropriate Robert Hull, they stared perplexedly at the vase rather than listening to the euphonium, or playing it.
And it appears this may extend to some degree programmes. In a survey of PGCE students training to be English teachers with interviews of their tutors, we found a comparatively small difference in confidence about poetry teaching among those who had studied English literature as undergraduates by comparison with those who had not. Sometimes it helped; sometimes, the degree programme hadn’t included much study of poetry, or not so that this experience was transferrable to a role teaching it in schools. There were many splendid exceptions but that was the trend. It is also a trend which corresponds to the studies of English in urban classrooms undertaken by Gunther Kress, Carey Jewitt and colleagues twenty years ago. Taking a close look at the multimodal ensemble of meaning-making going on in classroom teaching settings, there was a pattern by which some set texts and not just poems were distilled into residues of textual exegesis and annotation, dislocating them and recasting them from their original provenance as cultural artefacts and experiences of intrinsic interest.
So what does this have to do with Poetry By Heart? At the root, it’s all very simple. Choose a poem, learn it by heart, share it out loud, and listen to others doing the same. Poetry By Heart is designed to address the kind of poetry problem identified by Robert Hull or earlier by Ted Hughes.
It refocuses attention on the generality of poetry by focusing on poems: children and teachers are invited to explore a range of carefully selected and curated poems of different types, from different times, by men and women, representing gender and diversity and all with a special potential to be learnt and spoken. The poem selections take the form of timeline anthologies graded for people of different ages and more specialised poetry showcases such as the Mix-it-up selection for children. They are chosen and curated by poets and poetry educators with meditation which includes portraiture, illustrations and examples of the poems being read or performed. The intention is that the selection of poems will be extensive enough for a young person to find a special poem that speaks to them without getting lost in infinite choice.
In our experience, primary-aged children can learn poems surprisingly quickly and easily, more so than their teachers. The act of learning a poem by heart still gives close time and attention to it. And while it’s sometimes a chore, it seems that committing a poem to memory is just that: nearly anyone can manage it. It takes time and perseverance. The reward is a special poem residing in memory, a companion, growing up with the person, and coming to mean differently as that young person matures, sometimes over the course of a life. Learning a poem by heart is also an act of close observation of a poem, whether this is done by writing it out, speaking it or hearing it spoken or by a combination of those methods. The sense of what the poem is becomes more vivid and immediate than by silent reading, so encouraging the pupils to start to notice its details of composition, such as the way the punctuation and line breaks hint at how it should be read.
Then there are the options for crafting a poem for performance, including preparing to perform the poem in a pair or small group. This seems to be the hardest part, and the most rewarding allowing the child to interpret the poem as they think it means and works best. Look at the choices used here.
Many methods can be used, from the traditional stepped-back approach in which the poem is spoken clearly by a person standing still to more dramatic, musical and ensemble performance. You can see all these modelled in the young people’s versions of Harriet Tubman by Eloise Greenfield. In every case, the poem is focal. The different approaches foreground different dimension from the poem’s eloquence, its musicality, its narrative interest, its drama, and its moral authority.
And there is the coming together to share poems and respect for other people’s courage and efforts. Speaking a poem out loud can be a challenge for most people – there is an element of social risk – of drying up, fluffing the lines or losing control. This tends not to happen, and if it does, it elicits empathy and kindness. In our experience, most people are held by the eloquence of what they speak, the sense of occasion, and the attention and respect of their peers and the wider audience. And most derive an enduring sense of achievement for having shared out loud a poem meaningful to them, getting over their anxiety, and holding themselves in public space with confidence.
That’s the thinking, and after ten years of Poetry By Heart we are confident it works. Spectacularly in the Grand finale event at Shakespeare’s Globe, and also in classrooms, schools and home settings. Seeing is believing. We invite you to join in the serious fun.
In The Reading Corner … listen again
Looking to update your poetry collections?
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