Sunday, 16 March 2014

A First World War Poetry Showcase

This weekend, I took one of Oxford Spires' sixth form students to a national poetry recitation competition: Poetry by Heart. This innovative and exciting celebration of poetry involves students selecting and learning poems off by heart, exploring and presenting them in their own voices.

In order to be invited to the regional finals in London, Esme had to compete in a number of rounds in school and against other schools in the county. A few weeks ago, Miss Woolley and I escorted Esme to the Oxfordshire heat at the Old Fire Station in the city centre, where she recited her three chosen poems to an exclusive audience.

Esme worked very hard to learn these poems, especially considering how many other responsibilities and commitments she has. The poems she selected are true reflections of the person she is, and she inhabited them like they were her own. The competitors had to chose one poem written before 1914, one poem written after 1914, and one poem from the First World War, to honour the centenary. Her poems were:

Since there were not many entries from Berkshire, the two counties were combined, and although Esme performed magnificently, she lost out to a confident and passionate competitor from St Gabriel's School for Girls.

But two weeks later, we received a letter inviting her to the regional finals - apparently, although the overall winner for that heat was from Berkshire, the organisers still wanted a competitor from Oxforshire and Esme was chosen.

As such, we ended up in London this weekend, sharing in a wonderful celebration of the written and spoken word. The schedule was made up of a variety of events, including a literary bus tour via Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey and past the spot where Sherlock fell off St Bartholomew's Hospital (my risk assessment did not account for the level of excitement experienced by Esme and I), a visit to BBC Broadcasting House to record her The Things That Matter for Poetry Please, and the regional and national finals.

The South East heat was the first of the regional finals, and it was immediately clear that the competition was tough, though the interpretations and performances varied. Where multiple students had selected the same poem, each recitation seemed completely different as competitors interpreted the words in different ways. But what I loved the most was the way each reader so completely adopted the poems as their own, and the support they gave each other when they were up on stage and mingling elsewhere during the weekend.

I have come home from this weekend with my love for poetry completely reinvigorated, and plan to spend today dipping in and out of various anthologies, as well as trawling the Poetry by Heart website. I hope Kate and I can draw from Esme's success and extend the value and love of recitation through the school.

To find out more about Poetry by Heart, or register for the competition, visit

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