Last night I had the pleasure and privilege of MCing the Gloucestershire finals of the Poetry by Heart competition. This is a national initiative set up by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. It is a poetry recital competition for 14-18 year olds. The contestants must choose 2 poems from the fat anthology containing a timeline of verse from Beowulf to 21st Century poetry: a pre-1914 and post-1914. And this year they were asked to select a third poem, from a First World War anthology. With these three poems committed to memory they must first compete within their schools, in front of class mates; and then the school winners must compete with their county. The winners of these heats get to go to Cambridge in March to perform in the regional and national finals.
The learning of poetry by heart is a great way to build confidence and self-esteem, improve public speaking skills, and foster a deeper understanding of language – transferable skills that can help in many ways; and the poems can become wise friends for the reciter – guiding through life. And you’re never short of a party-piece!
The essence of the contest is very bardic and similar to the Eisteddfod system of which I am very familiar – having entered, won and judged several Bardic Chair contests (the latest being the Bard of Hawkwood which I set up last year). Any initiative that encourages the Bardic Tradition is good by me and this is a particularly well thought out one.
To warm the audience up I offered my comic poem, ‘Phone Tree’, and later on, a couple of my favourite poems, ‘A Musical Instrument’ by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, and ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by WB Yeats.
I was relieved not to be judging last night – always a tricky thing to undertake, especially when the quality is so high. And it certainly was in the Gloucester Guildhall. The five contestants (all girls, sadly, as the only boy dropped out at the last minute – but well done to the girls for being so brave!) were all of a very high standard. I was deeply impressed by all of them – bringing alive some of my favourite poetry (Kubla Khan; Dover Beach; Lights Out; Journey of the Magi).
There were three judges – all experienced in poetry and drama. We had a guest poem from artist-scientist, the Purple Poet; and a set from Joy-Amy Wigman, the ‘red haired pixie of doom’, who entertained the audience whilst the judges deliberated.
The Guildhall is a great venue – a classy old building which is now an arts centre, with cinema, bar, hall and workshop rooms. It looked like alot was going on.
The judges returned and the winner was announced – Sophia Smout – who will go onto Cambridge. Prizes were handed out – and all those who took part achieved alot by just stepping up the mark. They deserve our respect. As do their parents and teachers for supporting them.
Tim Shortis, from Poetry by Heart, said after that I ‘…did a great job as MC, soothing and encouraging and generally wafting people towards the light.’
I’m a good wafter!
Whatever age you are – it is always worth learning a poem: a friend for life.