Poetry recitation as historical legacy and as contemporary, embodied, interpretative poetic practice

Tim ShortisMCRp

Since 2007, several new-style national poetry recitation competitions have been established in the post-colonial legacy of the English-speaking world, including Poetry by Heart in England, Talk the Poem in Jamaica, and Poetry for Life in South Africa. This panel session considers these three cases of the unlikely revival and reinvention of poetry memorisation and performance: an older and sometimes discredited practice in school English teaching.

Poetry recitation was a staple of 19th century schooling in the English-speaking world before falling into decline from the mid-20th century, with a reputation compromised by memories of enforced rote learning of prescribed poems in acts of class and colonial imposition. Meanwhile many poets have argued for the special relationship between poetry and memory as well as for the special value of attending to poems in spoken public form. In spite of such advocacy, poetry recitation remains contested with connotations so problematic that the word itself is avoided in the titles of the new competitions, which instead bring attention to the affective experience of a poem taken into memory and its public sharing: Poetry Aloud; Poetry Out Loud; Poetry By Heart; Poetry in Voice; Talk the Poem; Poetry for Life.

The session consists of three presentations, the first elaborates on the introduction above by presenting a critical comparison outlining how poetry recitation is being reinvented in the England, Jamaica and South Africa, including the poems chosen, the notions of performance promulgated and valued in the judging processes, the very different levels of resourcing available in the three contexts examined, and the consequences of that.

The second presents a case study comparison of versions of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem ‘Sonny’s lettah’ (1979), as spoken in “Landan Inglan”, and in Kingston, Jamaica in the finals of two national poetry recitation competitions, arguing that recitation affords a reinvented form of person-centred, culturally-specific, embodied literary criticism. In these performances, students differently embody the poem and their interpretation of it simultaneously, sharing it with others in a manner which appears to elicit strong levels of engagement. While literary analysis has often focused on the words and meanings of the written text of a poem, poetry recitation gives attention to interpretation made by the wider range of communicative resources that are orchestrated when a poem is spoken in public space. This case study suggests that the new-style of recitation may have potential as a manner of embodied literary criticism which is found vivid and culturally-attuned by its school student contestants and their audiences. This is of significance for pedagogical practice and for future empirical research.

The third presentation is an opportunity to hear from teachers and contestants and to think critically about the strong claims which have been made about the transformative impact of involvement in the Poetry By Heart competition on appreciation of poetry. While poets such as Heaney and Hughes have asserted that memorisation and speaking of just a small number of poems might alter understanding of poetry, those claims were made without reference to evidence. Does the new kind of video testament offer a warrant and how credible and generalizable is the testament of a competition’s winners? Is recitation - in its newly recontextualised competition format - offering a new manner of select enjoyment or does it go further, and how might we know?

Dr Julie Blake, Co-founder and Co-Director of Poetry By Heart, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Dr Georgie Horrell, Homerton College Cambridge, Director of Poetry Across Borders, adviser on Poetry for Life
Dr Tim Shortis, Co-Director of Poetry By Heart
David Whitley, Fellow of Homerton College, University of Cambridge, Principal Investigator of Leverhulme Poetry and Memory project, Poetry By Heart judge
Teachers, librarians and Poetry By Heart school organisers (names to follow)

Fri 2:00 pm - 3:15 pm