Reciting poetry

Reciting poetry

There is a moment in the film Dead Poets Society that conjures up memories of my own schooldays. We are in a Latin class, the students declining the noun agricola (farmer) in unison. When they reach the ablative plural agricolis, their teacher Mr McAllister simply says “Again” and the process repeats. It is traditional rote learning, there to accentuate the contrast with the unorthodox methods adopted by Mr Keating, the poetry teacher. To be clear, this blog is not a defence of rote learning per se, still less a call to adopt the bleak “Fact, Fact, Fact!” outlook of Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind. (At the end of the film we again see McAllister’s class, still mindlessly declining nouns and conjugating verbs but now doing so outside in the courtyard. It is a small concession to the Keating revolution.) But it does support giving children opportunities in school to recite – including from memory – poems and high-quality prose (both modern and canonical), as an educational good in itself and as a way to help them become more confident public speakers. Besides, it’s fun!

The trigger for this short series of blogs on the importance of developing young people’s speaking skills – see the links below – was the response to the speech on education policy delivered by Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, in early July, with its references to oracy.

There was an interesting op-ed from Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, for example. Moore is a ‘big beast’ of the political right – a former editor of the Telegraph as well as of its Sunday edition and the Conservative-leaning Spectator magazine. He was chosen to write the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher (published in three volumes), and he now sits as a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, having received a peerage from the government of Boris Johnson. His own education included Eton and Cambridge.

This background information is relevant. In recent years education has found itself on the frontline of the so-called culture wars and arguments about ‘wokeism’. The right’s critique is rooted in the belief that the state education system fails the vast majority of children. The educational establishment – the ‘blob’ – is obsessed with egalitarianism, in hock to the teaching unions and inimical to innovation and competition. The education system, so the argument goes, is firmly in the grip of left-wing culture warriors and their ‘wokeist’ ideology. Education-related stories in right-wing newspapers are peppered with terms such as ‘banned’, ‘brainwashing’, ‘indoctrination’ and ‘going woke’.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Moore dresses up his response to Starmer in partisan clothes, in line with the right’s attack on what it sees as the ‘dumbing down’ of education. The state system, he says, considers it ‘elitist’ to teach high culture to children from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds. The belief that children should only be taught things that they can ‘relate to’ – that are part of their ‘lived experience’, to use an in-vogue term – is therefore denying them access to the very best, such as Shakespeare, Dickens and the King James Bible. He is nodding here to Matthew Arnold’s famous reference to culture as the study of perfection and “getting to know … the best which has been thought and said in the world”.

Moore concedes that Starmer’s comments on oracy ought to be taken seriously but argues that it is indeed neglected in modern state education. He then goes on to highlight the emphasis on the spoken word during his own “long-distant” education – reciting the Lord’s Prayer, reading aloud poems or passages of literature or scripture, reciting Latin verse, lengthy recitations of literature in front of parents, debating societies.

We can argue all day about the place of Christianity in education today except as part of the religious education curriculum and debate the need for lengthy recitations of anything. But my guess is that the typical disinterested citizen would not quibble with the basic point: that learning and practising how to speak in front of others – and having opportunities to do so on both formal and informal occasions – is a worthwhile endeavour. I certainly don’t.

And what better place to start than with poetry? It surely ought to be the go-to resource for introducing children to the beauty and musicality of language, for practising memory-strengthening techniques and for helping them learn to speak confidently and fluently in front of others.

The art of reciting poetry dates back to ancient times. Epic poems like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid were almost certainly written to be read aloud. Learning poems by heart, says Gyles Brandreth, is good for you and “deeply satisfying”. In a blog written just as we were entering lockdown in March 2020, Gyles discussed the benefits for people of all ages (including unborn children) of learning and reciting poems. He had previously published an anthology of favourite poems called Dancing by the Light of the Moon, the title a line from The Owl and the Pussycat, which he had learned by heart as a child.

Our Benefits of oracy blog discussed the four skillsets that the English-Speaking Union says underpin oracy and their wider curriculum applicability. We noted that the fourth skillset – expression and delivery – was the area most obviously connected with helping develop self-confidence and also empathy (the ability to put yourself in the position of another person). What better way for helping even young children learn about expression and delivery – emphasis and intonation, rhythm and metre, voice and articulation – than via a poem?

Meanwhile, we highlighted the educational value of poetry in our blog Poetry is perfect for helping children to appreciate words and language. It is a discussion that we will return to in the run-up to this year’s National Poetry Day on 5 October.

Image at the head of this article by 14995841 from Pixabay.

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