British government launching Poetry by Heart program
by Nick Davies
The British Department of Education is funding a new program called Poetry by Heart, an initiative to encourage students to memorize a wide range of poems, from works by 14th-century writers like Chaucer to a 2010 piece by Jacob Sam-La Rose. And to make the prospect all the more appealing to young people, it’s set up as a competition.
Schools around England can register to participate and hold school-wide contests for their students before March 15, which will be followed by county competitions, ultimately leading to the national finals on April 19th and 20th. For the initial rounds, participating students have to memorize two poems — one published before 1914 and the other published after — and an additional one if they make it to the nationals, which will be held at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Poets Sir Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland selected the 130 poems that students can choose from.
Motion explained that he wants the competition to open the door for students to enjoy more poetry:
It has always been my hope in setting up Poetry by Heart that we would give young people the opportunity to enjoy a wider range of poetry than they usually find in their preparation for exams. We want to offer new ways of finding pleasure and confidence in a part of the curriculum where such things can be in short supply. The sort of pleasure and confidence, in fact, that adds tremendously to young people’s self-esteem, to their verbal skills, to their powers of communication, and to so a more fulfilled life and greater opportunities. The competition is an end in itself, but it’s also a gateway, a beginning.
To that end, as the Guardian points out, Poetry by Heart emphasizes more modern and accessible poetry, with the hopes that it will get young people interested in the form, “with a majority of the 130 poems written post-1914, and almost 50 dating from the past half-century.” The selections include 43 poems by women, as well as poets of diverse backgrounds. Motion explained that there was a concerted effort to place lesser-known or overlooked works alongside the traditional canon, and to feature a wide variety: “Story poems, love poems, frightening poems, tender poems, political poems, comical poems, poems that show the world as it is, and poems that look through the world into infinite space.”
Poetry by Heart welcomes debate over the poems that they’ve chosen; there’s a section of the official website called Argue with the Anthology, where you can contact them to suggest which poems to add or remove for next year’s competition, which they’re hoping to expand to 200 poems.
Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.