Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 22 April 2013

By Heart

I came across something potentially very interesting in the Sunday Times yesterday, and was then very badly let down by semantics. What’s more, I was let down very badly, by semantics, by a poet.

I don’t know about you, but I expect a good deal from poets and their work. Isn’t poetry the distillation of an idea into its purist form? Aren’t we supposed to learn more from a poem, and therefore a poet, and not less?

Andrew Motion, erstwhile Poet Laureate
Andrew Motion, our former Poet Laureate, which, it turns out, isn’t the job for life that I always believe it to be, inaugurated a prize for poetry in our schools, and spent half a million quid of taxpayers money running and paying for it.

I have no problem with that. In fact, with only that information to hand, I’d be cheering. Spending money on education - tick. Spending money on poetry - tick. Spending money directly on kids - tick. Spending money on a prize that kids are allowed to compete for - tick.

Then everybody’s expectations began to lower all over the place.

To begin with, not one of the fourteen to eighteen year olds involved was expected to write any poetry. So, nobody was creating anything, which seemed like a missed opportunity to me. This was a prize for secondary school kids and they weren’t asked to make something, which I thought was a terrible shame. 

These kids were, however, asked to learn something. Well... Huzzah!

Then I read the next bit and my brows knotted, and I thought about what I'd read and I looked for the distinction. I found it, or, at least, I found the only thing I could imagine it to be, and then I googled some dictionaries to see if I was close. I guess that I must have been, because I could find no evidence of a distinction between the two phrases anywhere on-line, and Andrew Motion gave no definition of his terms, not in the stuff that I saw reported, anyway. I was disappointed in his lack of specificity. Andrew Motion isn't just a poet, he was our Poet Laureate, he ought to be good at this stuff.

The contestants were invited to ‘learn by heart’ and recite two poems. That phrase ‘learn by heart’ was very important, because the contestants were being invited to 'learn by heart', specifically, rather than to ‘learn by rote’. Semantics, you see. Andrew Motion made the distinction. I’m guessing that he meant to learn a text well enough to be able to repeat it, at will, without recourse to reading it, and to understand the content of a text and be able to discuss it. I assume that ‘by rote’ he meant the first half of that definition without the second half. I’m making assumptions, you understand, because, nowhere could I find a distinction between those two phrases, which, as far as I could determine both mean to learn a text well enough to be able to repeat it, at will, without recourse to reading it.

So the kids taking part were, basically, being expected to learn two poems. Big deal! 

I was learning poems, ‘by heart’, long before I reached the advanced age of fourteen. I remember my grandfather reciting great swathes of poetry with enormous gusto and always appropriately, showing an advanced level of understanding of the material, and he left school in 1917, aged 12 to become an apprentice gardener.

That segues me neatly into my next point. The powers behind the prize also sounded immeasurably smug about the fact that one of the two poems the contestants were required to read was written before 1914, as if that, in some way, made the process somehow much, much more difficult.

When I was at school, all A’ level students happily read Chaucer, in the original, and virtually all of the poetry we read, perhaps with the exception of a bit of war poetry, was written before 1914. Metaphysical poetry, anyone? The Romantics?

Come to think of it, in order to pass an O’ level in English Lit in the '70s or ‘80s (that’s a GCSE, now), it was key for every student to have a pretty decent selection of quotes in his or her armoury, on exam day, including verses and verses of poetry and a couple of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, and if you didn’t have a clue about the content then regurgitating those quotes in the exam wasn’t going to help push your marks up.

Claims are made every year that standards in schools aren’t slipping, but we now have a prize for kids to try to persuade them to learn, by heart, a couple of poems by the time they reach the grand old age of eighteen, and it's costing half a million pounds to run it. 

I wouldn’t mind so much, but, in the end, even the judging panel was lazy. Instead of allowing the kids to run wild and do some research to find their own choice of poems, a selection of poems was made, from which the kids could choose which they learned. What a missed opportunity. Had the kids been given free rein, they might have done that research, read some poems, and come up with some demanding choices; it would simply have meant that the judges would have had to read them, too. I also wonder whether the contestants might have been asked to prepare all of the poems on the list and only been told which they would recite on the day of the competition. It really does seem as if it was all just a little too easy.

We expect so little, don’t we? And yet, somehow, we’re still delighted with what we get.

I’d like to have seen the winning recitation, but, sadly, it doesn’t seem to be in the public domain, not yet, at least, perhaps it’ll turn up on YouTube some time, who knows?

On the up side, Kaiti Soultana, an 18 year old student from Nottingham won the day, reciting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The fourteenth century, Middle-English poem is twenty-five hundred lines long. If she recited it, in the original, in its entirety, even I might be impressed by that. 

I do rather doubt that was expected of her, though, don’t you? I rather doubt it would even be expected of the judging panel to sit still and listen for the duration.


  1. It is sad, the dilution of education and the subserquent lowering of standards. I noticed it when I was at school; I was severely hampered in English classes due to the mixture of abilities. The teacher spent most of the time shepherding the delinquents instead of challenging those that wanted to learn. Yet there is widespread shock when half the teenage nation struggle to spell ASBO...

    1. Exactly the same experience I had time and time again, it's disgustingly lax for a country that has produced such great writers and poets in the past. I don't know why the government can't just realise that in this case, the old way IS the best way, and change the courses back to how they used to be. I would definitely prefer it, and I'm doing A-level English now.

  2. If poets should inspire then, by moving these thoughts from your unconscious to the screens of your readers, Motion has done his job. Which of course is also playing with semantics.

    I remember fondly studying Chaucer and the Metaphysical Poets. I can even still whack out an extended conceit if I necessary.

  3. I had an interesting interaction with Megan Kerrigan, one of the contestants in the competition, on Twitter this afternoon. I fear she thought I was rather harsh in my appraisal of the contest and of Andrew Motion's intentions.

    On the contrary, anything that gets kids reading and thinking about what they read is a good thing; I just think that schools should be, and should always have been encouraging just that.

    I am positively, categorically on the side of the student. I want students at all levels to expect more and better from their schools, and I want them to be offered higher standards of teaching and learning so that they can achieve more.

  4. I remember coming across Wilfred Owen's stuff in my earlier years (through school) and truly realising what poetry was capable of. since then I am less interested in poetry unless it is 'applied'.

    as far as expectations of memory are concerned, it's a shame these have dropped. although not, it seems, for the advertising gurus. but then they have their ways of making sure we remember ...

  5. The winning entry was available pretty quickly - and well deserved to win.
    I agree they could have been given a free choice of poetry but Gove would not have it - he wanted to 'pass on'... 'heritage' - not being a forward thinking man. They could have been instructed to choose one from the anthology and write their own or have a free choice for the second poem - the best of both worlds. Or perhaps Motion and Gove do not trust our young people? Listening to the superb work done by these young people despite the straight-jacket situation, I would trust them - and they'd do it for far less than the half-a-million that's been spent this year.