Hearing is believing
Rachel Redford reviews recordings that will appeal even to hardened poetry-haters.
Just as pupils need to see plays performed, they need to hear poetry. The rhythms and sounds of poetry cry out to be spoken; to expect pupils to study poetry cold on the page is rather perverse. No wonder it is often greeted by a groan in class.
Tapes are an obvious classroom solution and the use of poetry on tape needn't be limited to English lessons. In theatre studies, drama and personal and social education, the impact can be remarkable and for special needs pupils the benefits are enormous.
And what better way of tackling poetry in the literacy hour in primary years than with tapes? On two tapes, There's an Awful Lot of Weirdos in our Neighbourhood and Wish You Were Here, Colin McNaughton presents his own rollicking verses from limericks to rap. Once children have heard the poet's friendly voice they will ask for more.
Poems performed on tape for the middle secondary years can attract those usually turned off by poetry. With his fast rap delivery and reggae rhythms, Benjamin Zephaniah is kool; children might not listen to the teacher but they'll listen to him. In Danny Lives On, Danny the cat is innocently padding home when he is savagely kicked to death. "What kind of world do we live in todayWhen our future adults treat life this way?" asks Zephaniah. It could be an arresting start to a personal and social education lesson.
Zephaniah is a popular coursework choice for A-level studies and his Reggae Head, with its hard-hitting protest themes, is essential listening.
Poetry performed with an accent or in patois, as presented on Hearsay: Performance Poems Plus, catches pupils' attention by its freshness and variety. Grace Nichols's Wha' Mi Mudder Do is fun and makes children laugh by revelling in the sound play and rhythms of Caribbean English. They want to join in with the repetition and shout the final lines "Ain't have nothingat me mudder can't do".
Hardened poetry-haters are spellbound by John Agard's wild, incantatory delivery of Cowtalk. In "the glory of their interwoven black and white hide", he hears the peaceful cows telling us about the "dream of black and white hand in hand". The power of metaphor is a difficult concept to teach but it can be understood by listening to this poem.
When students listen to poetry they gain insights they often miss from the printed page. Carol Ann Duffy is on several syllabuses and poems from The World's Wife, the fictional experiences of unsung wives of the famous, are popular choices. Eileen Atkins's reading makes students laugh out loud; her vigour and mastery of the pause illustrate the poet's caustic wit - and her sympathy.
Studying pre-20th century sonnets is a popular option for GCSE coursework. The surprising versatility within the strict sonnet form is illustrated on 101 Sonnets by 101 Poets. It's good to see students smile as they listen to Robert Southey's To A Goose. Timothy West exploits the comic alliteration of "waddle wide with flat and flabby feet" and the bathos of the final couplet that sees the goose served with onions and port wine. Don Paterson's brisk introduction is also worth playing to students for its zippy observations on the sonnet and its background.
Anything that helps students with classic poets is welcome. Realms of Gold is a collection of Keats's poems, particularly effective in the classroom because it includes elucidating extracts from his letters. Keats wrote Ode to Autumn knowing his tuberculosis would soon kill him and the clear reading by Sam West, Timothy's son, gives a sense of finality made more poignant by the letter to Fanny Brawne which follows. "I cannot breathe without you," he wrote to her.
Peter Davidson's readings on John Keats are also excellent for students. As with all his readings, which include Donne and Browning, he breathes life into the poet's lines. The enormous narrative drive he gives to The Eve of St Agnes lets struggling students appreciate its great storyline.
Seamus Heaney is widely studied for both A-level and GCSE and he has recorded most of his poems. They are valuable for the supple richness of his voice and his brief, insightful introductions to the poems. His reading of Clearances, the sonnet sequence written in memory of his mother, conveys both loss and love. As he helps his mother fold sheets from the washing line, he gives an extra onomatopoeic zest to the sound they make, the "dried out undulating thwack".