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Andrew Motion

Sir Andrew Motion (Photo credit: Mr Ush)

Poetry by Heart is a recitation competition which launches in British schools this month. The competition, funded in part by the Department for Education and run by The Poetry Archive, is the UK equivalent of Poetry Out Loud, the US’s national recitation competition and requires entrants to memorise two poems: one pre- and one post-1914.

Critics of the competition will find plenty to dislike here: poetry recitations are an annual event in many prep schools and, for some, this will look like central government aligning British education with the values and practises of the independent sector and of a bygone era; of the 130 or so poems in the anthology, many were written by canonical figures like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, which, some would argue, have nothing to say to students living in a multicultural society; giving half of the anthology to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries gives them undue weight; the judging criteria, with marks awarded for physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, overall performance and accuracy, turn poetry, a fugitive thing, into a tawdry performance like Strictly Come Dancing; the website’s presentation, biographies and prompt questions makes the anthology look like the pre-digested literature doled out by examination boards; being asked to learn a poem off by heart and to suffer the horror of public performance will be enough to put droves of students off poetry for life.

However, the anthology is an interesting beast and even the pre-1914 section avoids the usual list of dead white men with the inclusion of poems by Katherine Philips, Anne Finch, Charlotte Smith, W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Dunbar. The poems themselves are superb and, looking at the list, I quite fancy learning Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and Arnold’s Dover Beach just for the pleasure of it. The post-1914 section is bang up-to-date with poems by Paul Farley and Jacob Polley, for example. This move has been criticized by detractors because no-one should be forced to carry the work of poets yet to stand the test of time around in their heads and into their dotage. This is a fair point and one detects Motion fearing that a larger pre-1914 section would signal to a new generation of readers that today’s poetry is all washed up. This second half of the anthology looks like an appeal to the new generation to give poetry being written now a chance. I think that this was the wrong move: the likes of Shakespeare and Keats are being read today for a reason. Michael Gove said that ‘To know a poem by heart is to own a great work of art forever. Andrew Motion is a hero for ensuring more children than ever will carry poetry with them all their lives’. If I had the choice of owning a couple of works of art, knowing that I had to live with them forever, I would prefer to live with Raphael, Caravaggio and Goya than Emin, Hirst and Whiteread purely because they withstand repeat viewings better. My own head is filled with Shakespeare, mainly because the pre-2000 A level allowed few texts into the examination room, meaning that my generation knew their King Lear and As You Like It better than anything, even if they later studied English literature as undergraduates. Living with King Lear for the best part of twenty years has continued to bear fruit. Do all the poems in the anthology promise such a dividend to the students who graft to learn them?

Nevertheless, I think that Motion is right. The school curriculum and, within this, the English curriculum, is rammed to the gunwales with content, which means that teachers have to zip through poems, delivering their exegeses with authority and finality and the beleaguered students, knowing what’s good for them, learn this for their examination, or regurgitate it in their coursework. Asking students to learn the material is subversive. It sneaks it under the wire in the dead of night and, as a poet, Motion knows that once the words are lodged in the fertile earth of the mind, they will take root and grow.

Motion said that ‘Poetry by Heart is the best thing that’s happened for poetry in schools for a long time: a way for pupils to have serious fun while they extend their reading, deepen their powers of appreciation, and memorize beautiful and intriguing poems which will enrich their lives for ever’. He’s right. All that schools have given to poetry, and to students aged between 14 and 18, for the last umpteen years is a wearying list of the same old names and an unrelenting diet of examinations and assessments. Poetry by Heart is a brave start and I look forward to seeing it take root deeply enough to resist the attempts at weeding that a change of government inevitably brings.