Challenge, resilience, and creativity: Why learn poetry by heart?

Challenge, resilience, and creativity: Why learn poetry by heart?
Date9th Oct 2023AuthorToby LynchCategoriesStudent Life

Toby Lynch teaches English at St John Rigby Catholic Sixth Form College in Orrell, Wigan, where students have been participating in Poetry by Heart since 2014. With a nod to his maternal grandma, he explains why the competition is such a key part of school activity.

When I was a child, my maternal grandmother was given to bursting forth with lines from Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’. These sudden ebullitions – that seemed to have no specific stimulus, other than a quiet moment of opportunity – seemed both mesmerising and a little bit terrifying, in fairly equal measure. 

Grandma Rose (we called our grandmothers by their surnames to avoid confusion. Grandma Lynch was mad for a crossword, and I occasionally receive texts from my dad requesting my thoughts on a particularly thorny clue) loved enouncing beautiful and/or unusual words: on 1970s childhood family holiday journeys from Bedfordshire to Cornwall, seven of us crammed dangerously into Grandad Lynch’s latest unreliable vehicle (I have memories of Vauxhall Vivas and Morris Marinas), Grandma Rose would grandly announce, upon first sight of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and with stress upon every syllable: “Is-Am-Bard-King-Dom-Bru-Nel!” 

Later in life, I found out from my mum (Grandma Mary to my kids – we’re just a little less formal these days, somehow) that Grandma Rose had learned ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by heart at school and carried this strange and beautiful poem with her for life. When I was interested enough to look it up, many years after Grandma died, the resonance of seeing the same words that she had so often spoken printed on a page was extraordinary: it felt like an electric current of human connection. My mum knows bits of it too, and it is so entwined within our family cultural history that she has all three of John William Waterhouse’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ series as framed prints in her house. I bought her two of the three, and my older sister the other, all as presents. 

So, eventually, I come to Poetry by Heart, the national poetry recitation competition that we have participated in at our college for the last nine years. It was with thoughts of Grandma Rose and ‘The Lady of Shalott’ that I first decided we should give it a go; I really liked the idea of our students carrying beautiful words with them for the rest of their lives. I also saw it as an opportunity to develop the culture of the English department, to create a buzz around poetry (“A day without poetry is like a day without sunshine!” I often loudly proclaim in class, to admittedly general bemusement and not a little embarrassment), and, in a far more tangible, skills-and-futures-based sense, to develop student confidence in speaking publicly and having something individual to add to UCAS personal statements. I place this last on my list intentionally, although it is, of course, of great significance and validity when responding to inevitable student questions of “Why should I bother?”

We’ve had significant success, too: one national champion at post-16 level and two national finalists, all of whom have enjoyed an extraordinary experience and real celebration of their achievement. But it’s also about the others who participate in terms of what it gives them: the challenge of learning poems (another transferable skill – working the memory), the greater challenge of standing up in front of an audience and speaking out loud (sometimes something they’ve never done before but will, inevitably, in their later academic life or in the workplace, find themselves required to do), and the resultant feeling of achievement (and relief!) at having successfully done so. It won’t be as hard, next time. Some words from our inaugural college champion, Eva, who now works with us as a progress tutor: “Performing at the regional finals of Poetry By Heart was such a wonderful opportunity. Before the competition, I wrote a lot of poetry, but only performed my work once as I struggled with confidence. Poetry By Heart helped me to develop my public speaking skills and inspired me to read my poetry at venues around Greater Manchester and Leeds.” 

We started, tentatively, by just promoting the competition to A Level English students; from there, we promoted it across college through tutorials and student communications. Some of my favourite performances have come from students from other subject areas who I’ve never met before, choosing poems from the extensive list provided by Poetry by Heart on the timeline on their website that I’ve never come across before. Equally, old favourite poems have fresh life injected into them by students who make them their own: no theatrics, no bombast; just giving these beautiful words in beautiful combinations the room to breathe and be heard. My favourite individual story is the student who entered in Year 12 and really struggled with nerves who came back to be our runner-up in Year 13. Resilience: another powerful personal attribute that Poetry by Heart can develop.

We like to make a big deal of the college competition event itself: booking out the drama theatre at a time when a supportive audience of students and staff can gather, and putting together a panel of judges, always including our principal (to add a splash of gravitas to proceedings) as well as guest judges including, if possible, a past college champion who we invite to say a few words of encouragement to the participants. The fact that so many have returned to do this is testament to the power of the experience itself.

And that returns me to Grandma Rose, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, and its amorphous but indefatigable legacy, and Grandma Lynch and her crosswords. By encouraging interest in words – and wonder at the sound of words in particular - in our young people, we give them something to carry through life, something to seek joy and comfort in and from, something to pass on to their families. I’m slightly ashamed to say, given what I expect from our students in their participation in Poetry by Heart, that I only know one poem ‘by heart’: Philip Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’. But you’d be amazed at how often proclaiming “Man hands on misery to man./ It deepens like a coastal shelf” comes in handy. Particularly when you’re at the beach.

The 2024 Poetry By Heart competition is open now. Participation is free. Find out more and register to receive the competition pack on the website

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