By Jacqueline Grima
In March, Manchester Metropolitan University’s Reader in Poetry and Director of the Manchester Writing School, Jean Sprackland, travelled to Homerton College, Cambridge to help find the winner of the 2015 Poetry By Heart competition. This year, over 300 schools from all over the UK took part in the various rounds of the competition, each student having to memorise and recite a number of poems in front of an audience. Humanity Hallows caught up with Jean to ask her about her experience on the judging panel.
HH: What is the difference between learning a poem ‘by heart’ and learning one ‘by rote’?
JS: I suppose the difference is partly to do with choice. In some people’s minds, memorising poetry reminds them of dusty, old-fashioned teaching methods: the pupils standing in rows parroting the poem mindlessly and the teacher beating time with a ruler on the edge of the desk. Learning by heart happens when you have some choice and control. Poetry by Heart is not compulsory, and the young people who get involved have a huge range of poems to choose from, spanning over a thousand years from Beowulf to the present day.
HH: Do you think that reciting poetry in this way helps young students engage more with the real meaning of the poems?
JS: When we talk about the meaning of a poem, we are not talking about one simple thing. Understanding a poem is not just a question of decoding narrative and theme. A poem differs from other kinds of text in that it is musical and designed to have a life ‘on the ear’ as well as on the page, and this ‘sound sense’ is also part of its meaning. Learning a poem off by heart means saying it to yourself over and over again – out loud or silently in your own head – and there can be no better way than that of engaging with its meaning. I also find that as a listener I learn a lot about even the most familiar poems by hearing them recited.
HH: What, in particular, were the judges looking for in this year’s student performances?
JS: The judges work in teams, scoring against a set of judging criteria and then comparing notes to make our decisions. We are looking not so much for a ‘performance’ in the theatrical sense as for a speaking of the poem in which the poem itself takes centre stage. We look for evidence that the poem really has been taken in and understood, and then spoken in a clear and illuminating way. The best recitations are often marked by an intense stillness, in the reciter and in the audience.
HH: This year’s winner was Emily Dunstan from Graveney School in Tooting, who recited poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Siegfried Sassoon and Keats. Tell me what stood out about Emily’s performance?
JS: You could have heard a pin drop while Emily was reciting. I almost forgot to breathe during Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Fish, I was listening so intently! It’s not an easy poem to memorise or to recite, but she captured all its dazzling light and colour and reflections. Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale is also a challenging choice – it’s long, and will have been well known to lots of people in the audience, but Emily made it sound very fresh and present, as if the sounds and scents of the night were in the room with us.
HH: The students were asked to read poems from a selection of pre 1914 work, a selection of post 1914 work and, in the final, a poem with a First World War theme. Do you think this helps the students engage with sometimes difficult issues and themes they might otherwise not explore?
JS: I hope so. The poetry of WW1 gives some very vivid personal insights into what it was like for people who lived through it, and that first-hand testimony can make all the difference, not only to an understanding of the history but also to a recognition of the awful realities of war and the need to keep striving for peace.
HH: In your opinion, what else can be done to encourage young people to engage with poetry that they might see as difficult to read or understand?
JS: A poem is a slow-burn thing. To get the most out of it, you have to take time to read for deep understanding, letting the poem develop gradually like a photograph in a darkroom. We live in a world of information overload, where skim-reading and speed-reading are important skills, but that shouldn’t make us lose sight of the different rewards that come from going slow. Poems sometimes get treated a bit like cryptic crosswords which have to be solved, or locks to be picked with specialist tools to reveal the ‘message’ concealed inside. In fact, becoming a poetry reader really means learning to relish the pleasures of incomplete understanding, because good poems are always a bit mysterious.
To find out more about the huge variety of poems used in this year’s Poetry By Heart, visit their website. On the site, you will also find a collection of poetry-inspired downloads and can register to receive updates about next year’s competition.
Jacqueline Grima is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. When not writing she loves listening to Green Day, Gary Numan and Foo Fighters. You can find her blog here or follow her on Twitter @GrimaJgrima