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Friday, 9 February 2018

POETRY - SPOKEN & UNSPOKEN

I was reading a while ago about some disagreement on the 'right' way to teach poetry. There are some who baulk at the idea of learning poems off by heart, reckoning that this method is too robotic a way to 'get' poetry. Others prefer quiet contemplation, letting the words soak in, studying form and letting poems find their own places in emotional spaces. (See what I did there?) I think there is room for both methods. It's up to the reader.

Somewhere between 1965 and 1970, when I was a pupil at St Mary's Christian Brothers Grammar School, Glen Road, Belfast, I was taught, along with 30+ others, in English class by Mr Agnew. It was nervy and embarrassing to stand up and recite poetry (book closed, brain in gear), especially when so-called mates would snigger and try to find ways to put you off. There were stumbles and stutters, forgotten lines, of course, but something in that method stuck.




Fast forward fifty years and I was reminded as I recalled a poetry anthology, "Poems of Spirit and Action", of two particular poems from those days - The War Song Of Dinas Vawr by Thomas Love Peacock and Sir Patrick Spens by 
(yer man) A Nonymous.


The War-Song of Dinas Vawr (first lines)
The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.
etc. etc.



*Sir Patrick Spens (first lines)
The king sits in Dumferline toon
Drinking his blood-red wine:
'O where shall I get a skilly skipper    
To sail this ship of mine?'
Up and spoke an eldern knight,    
Stood at the king's right knee:
'Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor    
That ever sailed the sea.' 
etc. etc.

* There's many a version of this poem.


   The strange thing is I could remember, here in 2018, the lines above and that is only possible, I reckon, because the poetry was drummed into me. And I remember loving the poems then and I have been reminded that I still love them. We were encouraged to recite Dinas Vawr quite fast, to build a rhythm and make the most of the words of the end of the lines. This made the poem exciting and fun. We were told to recite Patrick Spens in as good a Scottish accent as we could muster, again fun for us wee lads from Belfast. It is an action/adventure poem and that just added to my interest in the story.

    I like to read out loud, not just poetry but things I’ve written or chapters in books that deserve more than speed-reading or skimming.


   Mr Agnew did a great job of teaching poetry and other aspects of literature. I am grateful to him for being one of the first people in my life to introduce me to the power and entertainment of words, spoken and unspoken.

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