Poetry by Heart – lost for words?

The Poetry By Heart semi-finals at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday was a great excuse to get away from the desk and head down to London. For anyone who hasn’t caught up with this splendid initiative, Poetry By Heart is a national competition, now in its second year, in which 14–18 year olds are invited to learn and recite three poems, choosing from a wide, rich selection in the Poetry By Heart anthology. Schools hold classroom then whole-school contests, with winners progressing to county then regional heats.

As a member of the audience, I was handed a card which asked us to write down how we would describe to a friend what we had seen and heard.[1] It was question that I felt really required the resources of poetry to be supply anything like an adequate answer. I’ve been trying since last Friday to take the persistent image in my mind’s eye – iridescent bubbles, carrying the breath of the poet and the performer momentarily into the air – and make it into something half-presentable, but it hasn’t quite come together. (Yet.)

But what did we come to see and hear? What did we see and hear?

A competition?
Possibly. But competition was not the prevailing mood. The event had more of an air of celebration, festival, or party. With all the performers in each semi-final seated together on the stage, each individual performance seemed held by the little group, supported from behind as well as from before. A coming together.

A culmination?
Months of hard work come to fruition? It almost certainly was for everyone involved. But equally, it felt like opening, rather than a closing: a sort of T.S. Eliot moment, where ‘to make an end is to make a beginning’. For me as an audience member, it felt like a journey of shared discovery as we and the performers discovered new meanings in each poem, and fresh responses to old favourites in ourselves. In this, as poetry readings go, it was exemplary.

A standard being set?
Unavoidably, perhaps. But equally, in our current educational regime of targets and tick boxes, it seemed that here was a much more open-minded and generous approach. The diversity and the individuality of the performances was astonishing. But this was never a self-conscious individuality for its own sake; rather, an authentic interpretation forged out of each honest, unique encounter between reader and poet. Over just a couple of rounds, a few poems came up twice, with no fewer than three outings for Browning’s Porphyria’s lover. The same poem and yet a completely different poem: a different encounter with the poem and poet. This form of comparison in itself highlighted some interesting questions about the interpretative choices that open up as soon as a poem is spoken aloud. M’colleague and I certainly didn’t always agree in our own little private voting huddle. “She really brought out the rhythms of the poem.” “True, but wasn’t always sure about some of the enjambments, like at the end of that line …” “Oh but I liked the way she did that!” Different encounters between listener and performance.

A performance?
That’s a tricky one. Interestingly, the poet Jacob Sam La Rose, our very cheery compère, mostly referred to the competitors as ‘readers’, or, on the odd occasion, as ‘poets’. (A trip of the tongue that the poet himself acknowledged was rather telling.) His dilemma, I think, was real. Somehow, ‘reader’ didn’t seem quite right for what we were seeing and hearing; nor, perhaps, would ‘performer’. The word performer stems of course from performance, which has multiplying sets of meanings and a complex set of connotations – none of which seem quite to encompass the act of creativity taking place in the moment as the poem is spoken aloud. Similarly, reader and reading, which might indicate either reception (as in to decode and voice the words on a page) or a more active act of interpretation. The way we use all these terms raises quite profound questions about the voice and role of both the writer or composer and the reader of the poem. Exactly who is speaking? This is not drama where an actor seeks to take on the voice of the character.[2] In the course of a fairly complex argument about poetic interpretation, Christopher Collins argues that in writing a poem, a poet effectively splits himself to become both the speaker and the listener (or the addresser and the addressee). The reader, on the other side of the page, as it were, is invited into an act of poetic play or performance as they respond to the text and use their own voice to effectively impersonate the speaker.[3] By taking the part of both speaker and listener, a reader thus assumes a ‘multi-voiced central consciousness’ and thereby a centrality within their perceived world – a ‘degree-zero here-and nowness’. So, in other words, when we read a poem, the voice within the poem and the voice from within ourselves blend to become that which we speak.

All of which is to say that it seems that at the moment we do not have a language for what we are hearing and seeing, perhaps because the words we used in the past have, as it were, ‘moved on’. Or, I wonder, are there words that we have forgotten we knew? I was fascinated to read the other day that in the days when memorisation was a celebrated art, the lexicon of terms was much bigger than it is now. I wonder if there could be any similar lost words associated with recitation?[4] In reclaiming poetry recital (recite, interestingly, is another word with those positive and negative resonances) we are struggling to find words for things that we have forgotten, or forgotten how to describe. As in writing poetry, we find ourselves at the very edges of language.

At the end of each round, Sir Andrew Motion came to the front of the stage to announce the winner. Judges and adjudicators traditionally begin by emphasising what a terribly difficult task they faced and their extreme reluctance to single out a victor. But we all felt that this time it was for real. 

Debbie Pullinger

[1] If you were there, and didn't fill in your card, do feel free to leave a comment here – we’ll make sure they get it!

[2] One could argue that this is the case in a dramatic monologue, as for example in the Browning poem. But even there, it can also be argued that this is still a poem, in which the words are still subject to all the formal structures of poetry, that the poet is using this device to express something that could not otherwise convey using a voice closer to ‘real life’ or their own. And so it asks to be read with that sense of doubleness.

[3] Collins, C. (1991). The Poetics of the Mind’s Eye: Literature and the Psychology of Imagination. (p.58)

[4] Edward Casey notes the dwindling of the memory lexicon, that used to include such words as: memorous, meaning ‘memorable’, memorious, meaning – ‘having a good memory’, and (my favourite) memorist – ‘one who prompts the return of memories’. Casey, E. S. (2000). Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. (p.5.)