Dr Julie Blake
Poetry By Heart, the national poetry-speaking competition, marked its tenth anniversary this year, celebrations culminating in an exuberant Grand Finale at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
The competition invites young people to choose a poem, learn it by heart and perform it aloud. It’s open to primary schools, secondary schools and sixth-form colleges and this year saw the biggest ever response: 2000 video entries of poetry performances; 90,000 young people involved; a staggering 39,000 poems learned by heart. Finalists came from every corner of the country, performing for the panel of poet judges and live on the Globe’s main stage in front of a packed house of supporters, VIPs and poetry fans. Co-founder Dr Julie Blake explains how Poetry By Heart came to be, and what makes it such a special competition.
Poetry By Heart started in a conversation Andrew Motion, then our Poet Laureate, had with a Minister in the Department for Education about funding for poetry education. Andrew sowed the seed of an idea about a national poetry-recitation competition and it grew quite rapidly from there.
I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to do something different with poetry. I had the twin perspective, in my role then as Education Director of the Poetry Archive, of discussions with poets about their consternation at how poetry gets taught and examined in schools, and my experience as an English teacher and teacher educator.
I knew as a gut instinct it would be successful but Rachel Danks, then a teacher at Cotham School in Bristol, agreed to me coming in to run a three-week pilot programme with her Year 10 pupils. It wasn’t an easy class, and they weren’t making many concessions for a stranger and something they’d never done before. But in the final session a girl who had barely spoken in class before and mostly hid under a hoodie in school stood up and recited Byron’s ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ in ‘full-throated ease’. The class were stunned into silent respect. Rachel’s jaw was on the floor. And in that moment, I knew it could work.
As the competition has developed, I’m most pleased with the way schools have made it their own. Poetry By Heart is a framework everyone adapts to make it work for their pupils in their school: large and small, formal and informal, within the curriculum and extra-curricular, whole-school and wholemeal. It’s the same for pupils too – the way they make poems their own, and in that they make you experience the poem again, as if for the first time. That gives us endless satisfaction.
When we started Poetry By Heart some people said it would only ever work for higher-achieving pupils in more affluent schools. I never believed that and it’s not what happened – schools of every type and demographic profile take part, and teachers routinely tell us that it has worked really well for all pupils including those with statemented learning difficulties, English as an additional language, and significant challenges in accessing the mainstream curriculum. None of this is a surprise to me, but it’s still a real delight no matter how many times teachers and librarians tell us this.
Poet Daljit Nagra is Poet Advisor to Poetry By Heart and leads our panel of poet judges at the finals. His first experience of the competition was as a teacher, and for him the competition is very much about spreading the joy of poetry to those who haven’t had fair access to it before. We know how much the competition means to those who take part because they tell us. Comments like this from one teacher make our day:
Poetry By Heart has massively increased our awareness and enjoyment of poetry: it brings poetry ‘alive’, off the page and into people’s hearts.
Or this one:
I just want to say how much I love Poetry By Heart. Every year I’ve run it in school, the children have got so much from it – I find it has a lot more impact than other nationwide initiatives as it’s so practical and children can get involved in a really meaningful way. It is also something they can engage with, with a great deal of independence; they love choosing their poems and working out their performances without adult input! I am a massive poetry-teaching nut and even in our little, tiny corner of Cumbria the children find learning and performing poems infectious – I now don’t often have time to read my poem of the week in my poetry assembly because so many children want to read or perform a poem!
Looking back over the last decade, certain moments stand out. For example, I remember entering the National Portrait Gallery’s theatre at lunchtime at the first ever finals event in 2013, having been pulled away to attend to some other off-stage matters. This was the first ever finals. We’d had no rehearsal. We had no idea whether our timings would work and if we would get through the competition rounds. But having typed out the running order the day before, I knew who was on when, and when I walked through the door and realised we were 25 minutes ahead of schedule, I knew I could finally breathe.
Equally vivid in my memory is standing at sunset at Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme with Poetry By Heart pupils quietly taking turns to step forward and recite a chosen First World War poem. Turning my head to see other visitors to the Memorial hovering to find out what was going on and staying for the poetry. Young people giving fresh voice to the poems, so many of which were written by poets only a little older than themselves.
Mohamed Ali, National Champion 2023.
Standing on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe on ‘Freedom Day’ in 2021, looking out at all the children and young people who were there, all willing the first of our new format Grand Finales into being after so many lockdowns and so many missed experiences in their schooling, and thinking ‘Wow, they so want to be here, they so want to speak a poem, they so want to be with other young people’. It was an honour and a privilege to have made that happen for them at that unique moment in time.
And now we’re getting ready to move into our second decade: the 2024 Poetry By Heart competition will open on National Poetry Day – when else? – 5 October 2023. I and my co-director Tim Shortis are still ambitious, still keen that Poetry By Heart continues to grow. I feel that my work will be done when pupils can elect to speak a poem for their GCSE English Speaking and Listening assessment, and when we have a professional community with the courage and confidence in poetry to be able to make that assessment. I’d like every pupil to leave school with at least one poem in their heart. I’d like every poetry lesson to begin with a teacher’s first-rate reading aloud of the poem so that pupils have the experience of it before anything else.
Sir Andrew Motion flew from the US to be present at the Globe for the tenth anniversary celebrations and congratulated all the young people taking part for learning the poems and performing them with such confidence. ‘Learning poetry by heart is both serious and fun: an excitement and a dare,’ he said. ‘It is about understanding and remembering the deep recurring truths about our experience as humans, in terms that are especially beautiful and resonant’. Who wouldn’t want to open that experience to our young people?
You can find out more about Poetry By Heart on the website www.poetrybyheart.org.uk. Registration, participation and competition entry are free for schools and colleges in England and resources are available to support everyone taking part, with weekly drop-in forums for anyone with questions.
Poetry By Heart is funded with the support of the Department for Education.
Photographs © 2023 Sam Strickland.
Dr Julie Blake, FEA, FRSL(Hon), co-directs Poetry By Heart, the national poetry-speaking competition for schools. She researches and writes about the history of poetry for children, creates digital and print anthologies of poems for children and young people, teaches poetry pedagogy and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry in the school English curriculum.