Julie Blake: Treat a Poem as a Poem on National Poetry Day

September 25, 2023

Julie Blake, co-founder and director of Poetry By Heart, the national poetry speaking competition, tells us how to treat a poem.

'What I suggest one... should... do with a poem is treat it as a poem. To treat a euphonium as a euphonium you play it; if you put flowers in it, it becomes a vase.'

Robert Hull, poet

Poetry By Heart is all about treating a poem as a poem. More specifically it’s about exploring poetry more widely to find a special poem that speaks to you, learning it by heart and sharing it out loud – and listening to other people doing the same. It’s also a national competition in which young people choose poems they love, learn them by heart and perform them in school or college. Over 90,000 pupils took part in 2022-23 and the very best from every region of England came to Shakespeare’s Globe, London, to celebrate poetry. Their performances on stage of 100 poems was a living anthology, newly brought to life by young people’s creativity, imagination and understanding. This National Poetry Day we invite everyone to do as they did: choose a poem, learn it by heart and perform it for friends and family.

The theme of this year’s National Poetry Day is refuge. Below are four poems you might like to explore with different ways of thinking about refuge. Our approach is always, as Robert Hull says, to treat the poem as a poem: let its verbal magic work on you through enjoyment of its sound. Read a poem aloud. Hear its sound in the air, feel its shape in your mouth, see which lines draw you towards them. What do you notice? What do you like? What else does it remind you of that you’ve ever read, seen or experienced?

'Lament of an Arawak Child' by Pamela Mordecai

'How to Cut A Pomegranate' by Imtiaz Dharker

'A Portable Paradise' by Roger Robinson

'Cottage' by Eleanor Farjeon

When you speak a poem aloud you have to inhabit the unique voice of the speaker. You can’t deal with the poem any other way. So who is the speaker? Where are they? What do they want? How could they be saying these words? With these simple questions you’ll get quite a long way with the poem. And the more you stay with it, as you’ll have to if you’re going to learn it by heart, the more you’ll notice about what’s going in, how it moves, and the meanings of the poem will unfold their layers to you. If you let the poem do its work in this organic way, it’ll surely do it.

As an educator, it makes me wonder, not exactly for the first time, what we’re doing to poetry in schools, with our fixation on labelling the parts of a poem when we could be fuelling children for life with the poem itself.

We’ve spent ten years listening to teachers and young people; here’s what they’ve been telling us about what learning a poem gives them:

A sense of achievement, of taking on a challenge and not only accomplishing it, but in accomplishing it also giving other people the pleasure of hearing a poem aloud

The connection with people that happens when one person gives the gift of a poem aloud to another, inviting a conversation that might never have happened otherwise

The enjoyment of the poem as a poem, for speaking and listening to, for spending time with, almost as if you were getting to know a friend, which you are

The strengthening from whatever base level of memory, focus and concentration that happens when you are determined to learn a poem well enough to perform it

Independence – a parent, a teacher, AI can all teach you things about the poem but when you memorise it, you learn the poem and no-one else can do that for you

An enjoyment of language and the spoken word that comes from experiencing the beautiful, powerful words of great poets and owning that power as you speak them

For ten years, every other time I’ve met someone new and they’ve asked me about my work, I’ve been privileged to hear moving stories of a relative who has suffered memory loss, usually to the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s disease. These stories have the same ending: until the very end of the person’s life, they never lost the lines of poems they learned when they were young. As an educator, it makes me wonder, not exactly for the first time, what we’re doing to poetry in schools, with our fixation on labelling the parts of a poem when we could be fuelling children for life with the poem itself. But it also seems to me to be about the power of our poets’ words, above all others, and how we might better value them as the guardians of our humanity.

The 2024 Poetry By Heart competition runs from National Poetry Day, 5 October, to 28th March 2024 with the Grand Finale taking place at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London in June. Find out more and get involved!

Headshot of Dr Julie Blake

Dr Julie Blake

Dr Julie Blake, FEA, FRSL(Hon), co-directs Poetry By Heart, the national poetry speaking competition for schools. She researches and writes about the history of poetry for children, creates digital and print anthologies, teaches poetry pedagogy and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry in the school English curriculum.