The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see no doubt:
It is to keep the lightening out.
But what these unobservant birds
Don’t notice is that wandering herds
Of bears may come with current buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.
I offer a belated apology to Christopher Isherwood – my homework had been to write a poem and (for excellent reasons no doubt) I ran out of time and had to improvise. Fortunately my Year 9 English teacher was not familiar with the less erudite works of that great poet and I got away with my first (and only!) crime of plagiarism.
Shortly after this incident the Head of English took over the teaching of my class. My theory is that she recognised the shortcomings of the previous teacher who completely failed to inspire us. We were the top set and our new teacher, who had very high expectations of us, adored poetry. She introduced us to Chaucer, Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, war poetry and modern greats such as T.S. Eliot. This proved to be a transformative intellectual experience for me – it was as if a great door had been opened and I discovered the glorious world of the mind. I began to read widely, deeply and slowly, savouring the beauty and depth of great poetry. For a period of weeks I read the same Eliot poem every morning during registration – something about it resonated with my adolescent experience – and I began to learn poetry by heart. We weren’t asked to, but doing so gave me great pleasure. My hour-long bus journey to and from school gave me the ideal opportunity and I have vivid memories of learning long soliloquies from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar as the 339 bus trundled slowly through the lanes of Essex. I still have many of the books I used – I can see them on my bookshelves as I write – and the textures, designs and even smell of those books have strong resonances for me.
In the early days, all of the older children here at St. Helen’s College used to learn a poem by heart for homework every week, and each child would recite in turn in class. In many respects this was a great discipline and introduced the children to a wealth of wonderful poetry, but some found it difficult and the practice may have been counterproductive for those children. Children are still expected to learn poetry (though less frequently) and the annual Speech Competition, which takes place later this term, is a highlight of the school calendar.
We introduced the Speech Competition in the early 1990s principally to promote effective and confident public speaking – hence its name. Nowadays this is not an issue – St. Helen’s College children have remarkably confident and fluent presentational skills, and have many opportunities to demonstrate and practise them. The focus now is on the poetry, and we ought perhaps to rename the event accordingly.
Every child in the school chooses a poem from a selection chosen by the teachers, and learns it by heart. In the Nursery and Reception classes, each child will be encouraged to recite their poem at a special Poetry Festival in front of all of the parents. Remarkably, given their tender ages, just about every child will choose to do so, and the confidence, loudness and sparkle of the youngest children is quite astonishing! Some will recite in groups of two or three, but the vast majority will step up onto the little stage and proclaim their lines individually, perhaps holding their friend’s or teacher’s hand for reassurance, in front of an audience of some 150 children, parents and staff. Really impressive!
For Years 1 to 6 the event is competitive, and the majority of children take it very seriously. They learn their chosen poems carefully and practice diligently. They are not allowed to act the poem, and so the meaning must be fully conveyed through the voice alone. The quality of recitation in the Finals, which are judged by an external adjudicator, is invariably of the very highest standard. Listening and watching, as the older children recite with passion and sensitivity some of the greatest poetry ever written, is inspiring and often moving. For me, it evokes many memories and emotions from my own school days.
Mrs. Crehan likes to finish her blogs with a quote. I shall follow her lead this week with a quote by Matthew Arnold who, as well as being a poet, was the son of the great Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby School.
‘Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance.’