Every now and again a book comes along which, based on its physical appearance alone (and it may have other merits), makes you go “Aw!” and shouts “Christmas present!” Such a book is Poetry by Heart: Poems for Learning and Reciting, edited by Andrew Motion, Julie Blake, Mike Dixon and Jean Sprackland and published last week by Penguin/Viking.
First of all, Poetry by Heart is a beautiful artefact, substantial and weighty, with a beautifully designed somewhat retro cover in blue and yellow featuring foliage and birds (no designer’s name given that I can see – pity) and canary yellow endpapers. True, it has a substantial price too– the euro equivalent of £16.99 – but hey, Christmas is coming and you will be fondly remembered long after you’re gone by that favourite sensitive niece or nephew you buy it for.
Poetry by Heart the book emerged from a recitation competition for schools and colleges in England that was launched in 2013 when young people aged between fourteen and eighteen were asked to learn by heart two or three poems published on the website poetrybyheart.org.uk. The project was an educational initiative of the Poetry Archive (poetryarchive.org). In the book as now published, notes on the poems feature codes (“QR codes”) which link, through a smartphone or tablet, to either recordings of older poems read by contemporary poets or recordings of poets reading their own poems.
As the editors stress in their introduction, poetry was in its deepest traditions an acoustic form, but in the centuries after printed books were invented “the ear became increasingly like a sleeping partner … Its appetites were fed by conversations about metre and rhyme but its hunger to hear things out loud was generally ignored or left unsatisfied.” But now,
As things have turned out, the Internet, that very new-fangled thing, has been able to restore the very old-fangled truths about poetry’s deep nature. About breath and noise. About acoustic. The Poetry Archive proves this. It was launched in 2005 to host recordings of poets reading their own work, and now has a large audience. At the time of writing, around 200,000 people use the site every month, and every month they listen to over a million pages of poetry.
And what about the poems themselves? Well there are a little over two hundred of them and they range chronologically from an extract from Beowulf (Seamus Heaney’s version) to editor Andrew Motion’s “The Fish in Australia” and in terms of content or tone from old “schoolboy favourites” like Gray’s “Elegy”, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Southey’s “After Blenheim”, to moderns like Larkin (“Mr Bleaney”) or Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Sonny’s Lettah”. Ireland is represented by, among others Patrick Kavanagh, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney. I am glad to see old favourites like Peacock’s “The War Song of Dinas Vawr”
The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
and Louis MacNeice’s invigorating “Bagpipe Music”:
John McDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.
It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.
There is also Christopher Smart’s “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry” (For though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer); and then there’s Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Clare, Carroll, Hopkins, Kipling, Cavafy, Chesterton, Owen, Eliot, Betjeman, Auden, Ginsberg, Berryman, Walcott, Fenton, Shapcott, Donaghy, Imla and Armitage. So, something for everyone, and in the most beautiful of packages, certainly one of the handsomest books of the year. Come to think of it, if the foot comes off the neck a bit in the budget why not get one for the niece and one for yourself?