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LauraGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 02-Oct-14 16:50:01

Pioneering poetry

On National Poetry Day, former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, describes his love for poetry and the enormous benefits of learning it by heart instead of by rote. His organisation, Poetry Archive, has founded Poetry by Heart - a national poetry-remembering competition for secondary school pupils. Tell us what your favourite poem is below.

Andrew Motion

Pioneering poetry

Posted on: Thu 02-Oct-14 16:50:01


Lead photo

Former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.

Like most people born in the 1950s, my early school experience of learning poetry by heart was pretty grim. Occasionally the gloom was brightened by a teacher making it fun (in the way we were asked to learn, as well as in the poems chosen), but generally it was a matter of boring poems being boringly presented, and surrounded by a sense of impending punishment if we failed to remember them.

Rote learning, in other words, has a lot to be said against it. Learning by heart, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing (as I only saw in gleams and glances as a child). And especially wonderful when it comes to remembering poems, which have the delightful advantage of being organised in ways (involving rhythm and rhyme) that make learning them easy. As the phrase 'learning by heart' implies, this sort of remembering places the poem at a central place in ourselves and makes it precious; it allows the poem to draw strength from the emotional batteries we carry everywhere inside us, and reboots them; it makes the poem a permanent fixture of our selves, so that its meanings change and develop as we grown. And as it does all these things, it combines 'hard' benefits (information, knowledge, even perhaps wisdom) with 'soft' things that matter just as much. Things like pleasure and fun and entertainment and entrancement.

These are all qualities that my fellow organisers and I make the guiding principles of Poetry by Heart, which is a poetry-remembering competition for secondary school pupils, launched two years ago with funding from the Department of Education and under the auspices of the Poetry Archive (which I co-founded during my time as Poet Laureate).

As the phrase 'learning by heart' implies, this sort of remembering places the poem at a central place in ourselves and makes it precious; it allows the poem to draw strength from the emotional batteries we carry everywhere inside us, and reboots them; it makes the poem a permanent fixture of our selves, so that its meanings change and develop as we grown.

The competition works like this. With guidance, stimulation and encouragement from the Poetry by Heart team, individual schools run individual competitions, from which the winners progress to a county round (usually held in a library in the County Town), and thence to the semi-finals, and thence to the grand final. Entrants have to learn two poems each (and a third if they reach the final), which they choose from the competition anthology: the longest poems are a couple of pages and the shortest are sonnets.

For the first two years of the competition, this anthology has only been available online: it contains 200 poems, with one poem by each poet included, and ranges from Beowulf through to poems written in the last year or so. Contestants have to learn one poem written before 1914, and one poem written after 1914, and if they reach the final they choose something from a sub-set of poems that's presented alongside the main anthology - a sub-set that will vary over time, and at the moment contains poetry written during and about the First World War.

Does this all sound a bit controlling and therefore limiting? Actually it's the opposite. The purpose of all our directions is to steer students away from what they already know, or might be studying for their course-work, and into the embrace of poems they've probably never heard of. And to reassure them as they make their journey of discovery, we've written little biographies of each poet, and short introductions to each poem.

The online version of the anthology has worked very well. Last year (and from a strong high base) we increased the number of those involved in the competition by 20%. This year, our third year, we're already breaking through through into even larger numbers.

To help make this breakthrough happen, we're publishing (with Penguin) the anthology as a book - poems, biographies, introductions, the lot. And because the whole idea of the thing is so closely involved with sound, we've also added QR codes to several of the poems, so people can point at them with their smart phones and download readings that are hosted on the Poetry Archive.

Our intention in compiling the anthology was to combine the best of old and new, raw and cooked, wild and tame, familiar and strange; our aim in constructing it as we have done, was to make it a pioneering kind of publication, in which the sense world and the sound world of poetry are given equal attention and value.

Just as it is in each round of the competition, for which we hope nothing less than that it should become a shining feature of the school calendar – and (why not?) of the national calendar. As you can hear on the Poetry by Heart website, the standard of entries has been amazingly high from the start; and as anyone can imagine, the amount of collateral benefit it brings to the students and the schools is equally impressive. We hope very much that having the anthology in book form as well as online, will help to make the competition a permanent feature of our landscape.

Poetry by Heart, by Andrew Motion, Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, & Jean Sprackland is published by Viking and available from Amazon.

By Andrew Motion

Twitter: @motionandrew

ffinnochio Thu 02-Oct-14 17:33:56

This is my favourite poem:

Creation often
needs two hearts
one to root
and one to flower
one to sustain
in time of drought
and hold fast
against the winds of pain
the fragile bloom
that in the glory
of its hour
affirms a heart
unsung, unseen
(Marilou Awiakta)

janerowena Thu 02-Oct-14 18:09:19

I went to one of his lectures. I even bought The Cinder Path afterwards! I think it's an excellent idea, I can remember quite a few poems from my yoof.

I love this one

Flowers of the Mind
Last winter, when I was in bed with the 'Flu
And a temperature of a hundred and two,
I was telling the gardener what he should do.
You must keep the Neurosis well watered, I said.
Be certain to weed the Anaemia bed.
That yellow Myopis is getting too tall,
Tie up the Lumbago that grows on the wall.
Those scarlet Convulsions are quite a disgrace,
They're like the Deliriums—all over the place.
The pink Pyorrhoea is covered with blight,
That golden Arthritis has died in the night.
Those little dwarf Asthmas are nearly in bloom—
But just then the doctor came into the room.

Reginald Arkell 1934

BUT this one is my true current modern favourite

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 02-Oct-14 18:11:04

“The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.”

Louis MacNeice

But I think it would be better if the schoolchildren were being encouraged to learn passages from Shakespeare by heart, rather than poems.

nancy22 Fri 03-Oct-14 09:42:51

He thought he saw a coach and four that stood beside his bed.
he looked again and saw it was a bear without a head.
poor thing he said poor silly thing, its waiting to be fed.

..this is what my gramps taught me when I was a little girl

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 03-Oct-14 10:32:32

This was my party piece when I was a little girl

Wandering Jack

Listen to the song of Wandering Jack
He carries a bundle on his back.
What is inside it
No one can tell
He carries inside it dreams to sell.
Some cost a penny
Some cost a pound
And some cost nothing
I'll be bound.

Always followed by a hearty round of family clapping. grin

annodomini Fri 03-Oct-14 10:40:58

jingle, I am so glad to see that McNeice poem. I've loved it ever since I discovered it in an anthology I was using with the first A-level evening class I ever taught. I hope they liked it too.

sussexpoet Fri 03-Oct-14 15:57:46

As a performance poet of some 37 years' standing, my favourite poem has always been this gem by the late great Adrian Mitchell. I heard him recite it at the wonderful Beat Poets Night in the Royal Albert Hall back in the day.

Love is like a cigarette;
the bigger the drag
the more you get.

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 03-Oct-14 16:23:55

Yes. There's something special about it is n't there anno. smile I especially love the last four lines.

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 03-Oct-14 16:30:31

I first came across it towards the end of a lovely long hot summer, just before DD2 left home for uni. Somehow it matched my mood. Slightly sad, but happy too.

hildajenniJ Wed 08-Oct-14 09:40:57

My favourite, learned as a child in the early '60's.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments
Love is not love which alters
when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover, to remove.
Oh no it is an ever fixed mark,
which looks on tempests and is never shake,
'Tis the star to ev'ry wandering bark
whose worth's unknown although his height be taken
Love's not time's fool
Tho' rosy lips and cheeks beneath his bending sickle's compass come,
Love alters not within his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ
Nor no man ever loved.

It's one of Shakespeare's sonnets but I can't remember the number.

hildajenniJ Wed 08-Oct-14 09:43:31

I also know the poem I remember, I remember, By Thomas Hood but it's too long to write here.

I love poetry. Children should definately have the opportunity to learn it at

cerist Wed 08-Oct-14 19:48:07

I love poetry and have a number of favourites. This one by W B Yeats is one of them

Had I the heavens embroidered cloths

Enrought with golden and silver light

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

of night and light and the half light.

I would spread the cloths under your feet

but I, being poor have only my dreams.

I have spread my dreams under your feet

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I was lucky at school to have an inspirational English teacher who opened
my eyes to books and poetry. I am an avid reader to this day and I owe it all to her.

janeainsworth Thu 09-Oct-14 03:30:20

jingl I love The Sunlight on the Garden too.

This is another favourite,
A Prayer for My Daughter
W.B. Yeats
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

gillybob Thu 09-Oct-14 08:33:36

My all time favourite is Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. I remember doing a theatre workshop with none other than Dame Judi Dench (she wasn't a dame then) around the time she was playing Lady Macbeth alongside Sir Ian Mckellen (I would have been about 15). The theme of the workshop was the interpretation of this very poem.

I have managed to teach a small part of it to DGD's and they enjoy pretending to be the various characters in the poem.

JABBERWOCKY. Lewis Carroll. (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There , 1872). `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. Did gyre and gimble in ...

hildajenniJ Thu 09-Oct-14 09:04:49

gillybob did you see Pointless when they wanted words of more than six letters from Jabberwocky? It was the final and had I been a contestant, I would have won the jackpot. I think I could recite most of it, but it might get a bit muddled.grin

gillybob Thu 09-Oct-14 09:18:05

My grandma is a quiz program addict and she saw it hildajenniJ .Bless her knowing how much I loved the poem she telephoned me to say she had recorded it for me. Sadly most of it was missing from the recording although I will try and get it on catch up. Like you I can recite quite a bit of it but I also get a bit "muddled" with the order . It's a great poem to encourage children to use their imagination isn't it? smile

annodomini Thu 09-Oct-14 09:33:20

Here's Dylan Thomas reading his poem Fern Hill And you can find the text here. The feeling of a child running wild around the farm in his summer holidays is almost palpable.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 09-Oct-14 09:48:22

I wish I hadn't sent my Cider with Rosie to Oxfam.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 09-Oct-14 09:49:24

Kindle!!! smile

ginbins Thu 09-Oct-14 12:20:59

Dear Mr Motion, I think the ground is even riper with primary school children and it breeds a fabulous memory. We were brought up with the RLS poems, ie faster than fairies, faster than witches, bridges and houses and hedges and ditches etc learnt at 5 and still there.

grizelda Sun 12-Oct-14 20:06:27

When I was about 8 years old there was a play on my parents radio - I think it was called "The Way to the Stars". It must have been during the Battle of Britain. After all these years I can still remember the poem that finished the play.
Do not despair for Johnny Head in Air, He sleeps as sound as Johnny underground
Lay out no shroud for Johnny in the Cloud, And save your tears for him in after years
Better by far for Johnny the Bright Star To keep your head and see his children fed

Eloethan Mon 13-Oct-14 00:29:17

This poem was read at the end of the film "Carve Her Name with Pride".

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

FarNorth Mon 13-Oct-14 11:52:17

Thanks for the link to Hollie McNish, janerowena. She says a lot!

henetha Mon 13-Oct-14 11:52:45

Lovely to read all the above. There are so many poems to enjoy, it's hard to choose one... But here are some.
IN A BATH TEASHOP by John Betjeman.
Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another,
Let us hold hands and look.
She, such a very ordinary little woman,
He, such a thumping crook.
But both, for the moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop's ingle-nook.

Or, by Ernest Dowson.
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love, desire and hate.
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses.
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then passes
Within a dream.

By John Donne.
No man is an island, entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Any man's death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind, and
Therefore, never ask for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

By Leigh Hunt.
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief, who loves to get
Sweets into your list,
Put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and weath have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add
Jenny kissed me!

By Wiliam Blake.
Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
Man was made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.

By Walter de la Mare.
Hearts that too wildly beat,
Brief is their epitaph,
Wisdom is in the wheat,
Not in the chaff.
But, oh my dear, how rich and rare
And root down deep and wild and sweet
It is to laugh.

I could go on.... and on... better stop now though.
I have collected poetry all my life and have many exercise books full of it.
I do hope we can keep this thread going.