Thursday 5 July 2012

'Recitation' or 'performance poetry' ?

To return for a moment to the Draft Primary English Curriculum and one word: 'recitation'.

This may sound pernicketty but I have a minor problem with 'recitation' but, I hasten to add, I'm not going to fight to the death over it. Put it this way, 'reciting' poetry and doing 'recitations' is a Victorian and Edwardian thing. Throughout that time you could buy what were known as 'Reciters' - anthologies of poetry, monologues and sketches which amateurs and professionals used to learn. I collect them!

When I was a boy in the 1950s, the only word people had for performing poetry out loud either solo or as 'choral speaking' was 'reciting'. This was a very formal procedure where speech teachers or drama teachers would train a group of us (yes, I did it) to recite a poem. The teacher chose the poem, and like a choir, we would spend several weeks rehearsing it. I did this several times at school and also in the amateur drama group I belonged to at Questors Theatre, Ealing.

Since that time, the phrases 'performance poetry' and 'slams' have appeared and people like me have learned a lot from people, young and old, from a wide range of cultures. We've seen a much more informal way of presenting poetry which incorporates techniques from song, preaching, story-telling, rapping, stand-up routines and the like, drawing on traditions from the Caribbean, Chicago and New York, the Beat poets like Ginsberg and monologuists like Billy Connolly, Dylan Moran, Russ Noble and the like.

So, I think it's very important for teachers, poets and children to locate poetry in these traditions of 'performance poetry' and 'slams' where poets can move about, talk to the audience, use microphones and music. The word 'recitation' implies something much more fixed, staid and controlled by someone in the role of a director. In fact, once children see poets performing their poems they can imitate many of the techniques and develop their own very quickly.

As most people reading this will know, I've put 92 videos of myself performing poems on my website. The best way to access them is through the designer who put them there. That way you can get into a 'room' and surf through all of them. They're here:

Click on 'videos' and pull down the menu in the box with the words 'Date added (newest - oldest)' to choose how you want to watch them.

Another useful site designed specially for teachers, children and schools is the London Grid for Learning 'Perform-a-poem' site here:

However, if you google poets' names you'll find many other performances which can inspire children to have a go themselves.

I believe that this is the way to make the part of the draft curriculum to do with learning and 'reciting' poems work for teachers and pupils.