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Poetry by heart: here are the rules for pupils, and the poems

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Full details have been released of the Poetry By Heart national recitation competition for secondary schools, which is being funded by the Department for Education. Competitors, who will be from years 10-13, will have to learn two poems by heart from the Poetry By Heart anthology of 130-plus poems - one pre-1914, and one post-1914. The national finals will take place at the National Portrait Gallery in London on 19-20 April. Schools and colleges should register to join the competition at

Poets in the anthology run from the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Jacob Sam-La Rose, and include Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Blake, Burns, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, as well as modern-day poets such as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Basil Bunting, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Benjamin Zephaniah, Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, and Alice Oswald.  

On the Poetry By Heart website, organiser and former poet laureate Andrew Motion says: “Ever since I first started reading poetry in earnest, more than 40 years ago, I’ve always thought its meaning has as much to do with sound as it does to do with sense.  Poetry, crucially, is an acoustic form.  It’s emotional noise.  That is why it’s often able to move us before we completely understand it.  Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads.

“It has always been my hope in setting up Poetry by Heart that we would give young people the opportunity to enjoy a wider range of poetry than they usually find in their preparation for exams. We want to offer new ways of finding pleasure and confidence in a part of the curriculum where such things can be in short supply. The sort of pleasure and confidence, in fact, that adds tremendously to young people’s self-esteem, to their verbal skills, to their powers of communication, and so to a more fulfilled life and greater opportunities.

“Poetry By Heart is designed to put the emphasis on learning by heart, not on learning by rote.  It is about understanding and remembering the deep recurring truths about our experience as humans, in terms that are especially beautiful and resonant.  It is about doing this in a pleasure-filled way.  And it is part of the same benevolent revolution in poetry-proving and poetry-teaching that formed a part of the original intention in founding the Poetry Archive  during my 10 years as poet laureate.

“Most of us have some recollection of being made to learn things when we were kids ourselves, and most of us can remember bits or all of those poems in our older age.  This tells us several things, I think.  It tells us how important it is to learn good stuff, so that our heads are full of nourishing words and not full of junk.  It tells us this good stuff changes its meanings in very interesting ways as the years pass and the words stay in our memories. It tells us that despite or because of the effort involved in learning by heart, we as humans have a primitive appetite for it.  It makes us feel good.  It makes us find ourselves.

“We want it to be fun, as it encourages pupils to discover new pleasures and fulfilments, but we want it to be serious as well: an excitement and a dare.”

You can find out more details about the competition here



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Freda Davis

Sun 20th Jan 2013 19:00

Although tainted by association with Gove, I am hopeful that this could be enjoyable for all concerned. It so much depends on how it is handled though.

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