Thursday, November 05, 2015

`Learned by Heart and Recited in Class'

A reader made an unusual request. His daughter’s school is holding a “Bard Competition.” In the first round, students in grades three, four and five recite a poem of their choice not to exceed thirty-five lines. A panel of judges rates them, my reader says, “on things like complexity of poem, accuracy, presence, and the like. In other words, the student’s declamatory style.” Claire read Blake’s “The Tyger,” and Dad says:

“I’m pleased to say that she was chosen as one of the 12 finalists (out of 40). Won’t lie, I'm proud. Took a lot of courage to stand in front of the judges and compete against older students. I think her choice of poem weighed in her favor. Lots of the kids did obvious children’s poetry, but she couldn’t get by on being cute or funny. She had to convey wonder.”

In the next round, there’s no length restriction, and some students purposely choose long poems in hopes of impressing the judges, though they also risk putting them to sleep. My reader explains: “She’s interested in doing `Lepanto’ and I think it’s a fine choice, though maybe a bit too much. I wonder what you think. Something long enough and complex enough to show her mettle, but manageable enough to allow an accurate and rousing recitation. Something beautiful and classic, but maybe a bit surprising. Any ideas?”

Chesterton’s “Lepanto” is an inspired choice, and a daunting one for a third-grader. Written in a manic rush of inspiration on Oct. 7, 1911, on the 340th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, the 143-line poem is a rousing crowd-pleaser. Europe was spared a likely Ottoman conquest, lending the poem a certain relevance today. Chesterton even throws in a guest appearance by Miguel de Cervantes, who was wounded in the battle and lost the use of his left arm. While privately rooting for Chesterton’s chestnut, I drew up a list of suggestions: something from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and several poems each from A.E. Housman and E.A. Robinson. My reader wrote back: “I don't know whether I had ever read XXXV from A Shropshire Lad, but I choked up doing so just now.” He liked my Eliot suggestion, “Gus: the Theatre Cat,” but was afraid his daughter wouldn’t think it was quite long enough, so he asked for more suggestions.

I came up with Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” I could think of few poems written since roughly 1940 (Ashbery? Sharon Olds?) that would stand as both appropriate and interesting enough for a third-grader to recite, and for a crowd of teachers and students to hear. I thought of but didn’t suggest Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge” and much of Walter de la Mare.  

In 1978, Kingsley Amis edited The Faber Popular Reciter, an anthology of poems he judged worthy of being read aloud (some of which are suggested above). Before World War II, Amis says in his introduction, the poems he selected would have been “too well known to be worth reprinting . . . they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions.”

I haven't yet heard what Claire chose to recite.

[She selected "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. Her father writes this morning: “My wife and I are concerned that she chose it simply for its length, but Claire insists that isn't the case. Even so, who cares? I'd probably prefer that she choose something more manageable, but if she wants to aim high, then aim high, I say. If she spends the next two months committing to memory a hundred lines of classic poetry only to fall flat in front of the whole school, where's the harm? I mean that sincerely. On the upside, if she spends the next two months committing to memory a hundred lines of classic poetry and nails it in front of the whole school, she'll be the undisputed champ. The Bard.”]


Brian said...

I once had a student recite Yeats' "Prayer for My Daughter" to great effect. Of course, she was in grade 11. I have noticed on occasion that a student with a good voice may not much understand the poem, but, having found the music of it, is able to bring out the life in it. I applaud the school that encourages these recitations.

Jonathan Chant said...

Yes, a fine enterprise. The Highway Man is a good choice.

George said...

I was a good deal older than this girl when I encountered "Lepanto". I still time a certain cooking task by reciting the first stanza, probably inaccurately, from "White founts falling" through "smiling in the sun". (Maybe remembering it correctly would lead me to scorch the food.)

I think that a good deal of Yeats would do well to recite, as Brian says, though I would probably suggest "The Folly of Being Comforted" or maybe "Among School Children", even though I can never remember more than the first and the last two stanzas.