31st October 2014
Poetry By Heart 2014 National Finalist Fey Popoola reflects on taking poems to heart.
I never thought poetry recitation could be so much fun until I tried it…
When Kathleen, my English teacher at college last year, introduced me to the Poetry by Heart competition, I must admit that my motivation to join was more escapism than enthusiasm. It was my last year of college and I was feeling the pressure of A2 revision, university applications and impending adulthood. I needed something else to focus on – and poetry recitation seemed just academic enough to not make me feel guilty for cutting my revision time a little short. (Poetry is wider reading, right? Right??)
The Havering Sixth Form College competition was cosy; just four contestants at the back of our library, with a few snacks and some cake (tip to teachers: bring cake!). I could immediately sense, when we were reciting our poems, that there was an atmosphere of respect and togetherness in the room. The whole process of choosing two poems from the anthology, spending hours learning them by heart and then sharing them with friends is really a bonding experience – and this feeling only intensified as I progressed through the competition, right down to the final.
For the last few months I’ve been an ambassador for the Poetry by Heart competition, talking about my experiences at schools, contributing to PGCE workshops and conferences organised by NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) and NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education). Perhaps the most common question I’ve been asked about the competition is, “How do you do it? How do you memorise a poem?” My answer is always somewhere along the lines of: “It’s fun. When it’s fun, it isn’t hard.”
I think that’s the main difference between what we think of when we hear “poetry recitation” and what we see and experience during Poetry by Heart. Instead of being force-fed mass produced interpretations, we internalised these poems, forming our own personalised meanings. This was especially noticeable when we had people reciting the same poems in some rounds. They were the same words, but vastly different understandings of those words. Each person reciting brought a new dimension to their poem.
I believe that when you learn a poem by heart, you access it at a level that is almost impossible to reach just by reading it on a page. Unlike in an exam setting, where you focus on the metaphors and enjambment and other techniques, you actually get to the heart of the poem and can explore its tone, pacing, rhythm and melody. These things can often get overlooked in the classroom.
One of the best things about Poetry by Heart is the atmosphere. There’s a sense of calm and friendliness in the air, from the school competitions all the way through to the finals; we all want each other to succeed. I think that’s because of the shared journey we have all taken with our poems. We are in the company of other people who love – or are starting to love— poetry, which shifts the mood from that which we sometimes experience in our school classes. It creates a safe place for us to geek out about literature, and provides accessible exposure to a variety of poets and poems, from Tichborne to Armitage.
My advice to anybody considering entering the competition: Go for it! You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. You’ll learn so much about yourself, how you learn and how much you can achieve. And to boot, nothing is cooler than reciting poetry at parties (I promise!).
Best of luck and maybe see you around!
Fey Popoola (National Finalist 2014 and Poetry By Heart 2015 Ambassador)