Department for Education funds contest for schoolchildren to learn and recite verse
From the 14th century Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a 2010 composition by Jacob Sam-La Rose, A Life in Dreams, the 130 poems selected under a new government initiative to encourage young people to learn by poetry heart span 600-plus years and should cater to most tastes.
That said, as with any such sweeping literary selection, there will doubtless be quibbles over the verses chosen for a competition in which school and college students are challenged to memorise and recite poems. Poetry by Heart, a Department for Education-funded contest, will see school champions fight through to regional heats, which in turn will select the best reciters for a weekend of finals in London this April.
The contest, open to pupils in England in from years 10 and above, is intended to spark interest in poetry. While pupils are obliged to learn just two pieces for the contest – three if they reach the national final – the intention is that they will read many more as they select from the Poetry by Heart website, which lists the poems on a timeline. Each verse is accompanied by brief background on the poem and poet.
The selection, made by two poets, Sir Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland, covers the necessary great and good but has a deliberate bias to more accessible modern pieces, with a majority of the 130 poems written post-1914, and almost 50 dating from the past half-century.
After Sir Gawain comes Chaucer, represented by sections from The Miller's Tale, while Shakespeare, bookended by Christopher Marlowe and John Donne, makes do with the five verses of "When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy", the song from Twelfth Night performed by the fool, Feste.
Forty-three of the chosen poets are women, and the modern selections span a range of cultural backgrounds and experiences, taking in the likes of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, the Kurdish-born Choman Hardi and Daljit Nagra, who is represented by his tale of new immigrants, "Look We Have Coming to Dover!"
Motion, not always a fan of government education policy, especially regarding universities, explained the background to the selection: "The anthology is a cornucopia in which familiar poems from the canon appear alongside less well-known pieces – and burnish one another. Story poems, love poems, frightening poems, tender poems, political poems, comical poems, poems that show the world as it is, and poems that look through the world into infinite space.
"In every case, we preferred poems that make a powerful impact when they are heard aloud – not because they are theatrical, but because they dramatise experiences that surprise us into a new apprehension of ourselves and our capacity for imagining, thinking and marvelling."