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Getting to the heart of poetry

Oxford University Press recently partnered with The Poetry Archive to support Poetry by Heart, a new national poetry competition in England which saw thousands of students aged 14 to 18 competing to become national champion for their skill in memorising and reciting poems by heart. OUP provided free content from OED Online, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and the American National Biography Online to support students participating in the competition. Here, 18 year old winning contestant Kaiti Soultana writes about the experience.

By Kaiti Soultana


What impelled me to participate in Poetry by Heart? Like many of the other contestants, I wanted both to galvanize others and to be inspired myself. It seems that poets strive to enhance the minds of those reading and listening, and I find this so philanthropic. Though a cliché, it is true to say that although I won the competition, I would have won even if I had not gained first place; the experience was invaluable and truly irreplaceable.

Kaiti Soultana

What Poetry by Heart offered was an opportunity to deliver a poem aloud and consequently for me to retain it. What I think makes the spoken word superior to reading a poem silently is that delivering a poem aloud allows for both the poet’s and the speaker’s voices to truly be heard. Quite often you find that it is not only the words of the poem but also the sound of it that attracts us to it, even before fully understanding the message it is giving.  That is something I experienced when exploring the part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that I chose to recite. As competitors, we were provided with an anthology of poems of two categories to choose from and recite: a pre-1914 and a post-1914 list. It was the work of that anonymous 14th century poet that aroused within me such delight, though amusingly I initially understood very little of what I was reading.

It was that yearning to learn, and to explore what would otherwise go unexplored, which I found so inviting about Sir Gawain. I took up the challenge to inspire others through this astonishing, demanding, and somewhat alien ‘old’ English language. The alliterative threads that bound the poem made it easier to immerse both myself and the audience in such an unfamiliar realm, and it was this, I believe, that made my recitation successful.

My choice of post-1914 poetry developed from a somewhat different quality that poetry as a medium triumphs in: the ability to reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary. Elizabeth Bishop seemed to express such perplexed beauty in her poem The Fish, so much so that it established an abnormal yet completely natural and loving bond between myself as a reader and a mere fish.

I began preparing my recitations by acquiring as much basic contextual knowledge about both poem and author, attempting to understand what message each one was trying to convey, yet interpreting it personally and intimately. My progression in understanding each of my poems grew from a minimal surface reading to one where my own interpretation and ideas worked alongside that of the poet’s. I seemed to gain companionship with a person I had never met or talked with. I began to gain an insight into their minds, into the worlds they had constructed. It wasn’t just a poem by rote I had gained, but the appreciation and understanding of a poet’s imagination.

The competition itself seemed far more like a humble gathering of young literary enthusiasts. Through the stages – from school heats to county contests and finally the regional and national finals weekend – the rounds seemed more like a programme of complementary performances. They allowed for initial introductions to mature into lasting friendships – I have experienced the development of such friendships with people across the country thanks to Poetry by Heart.

Poetry by Heart finalists

Though enjoyable, I was unsuccessful in casting away the nerves I am often plagued with. However, it was participating in a competition that I sincerely valued and appreciated, that motivated and inspired me, and allowed me to at least control those nerves.

In addition to viewing others’ regional heats, Poetry by Heart’s organisers scheduled excursions for participants to the London Eye, the British Library and tours of the National Portrait Gallery, none of which I had been privileged to visit before. I was stimulated to explore a small part of London, an opportunity that was exciting, fun, and invaluable.

The weekend itself was nothing shy of extraordinary. It seems unanimous that what we had gained by offering ourselves as orators of the poems was more than just the memory of the poem itself. What I gained was far more remarkable; I discovered the importance of poetry to human beings, and how this importance has spanned generations. It continues to grow as a form of universal expression, and with great thanks to Poetry by Heart I have truly understood its often unacknowledged value.

Kaiti Soultana is 18 and studying A levels at Bilborough College, Nottingham.

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Image credits:  Courtesy of Poetry by Heart; do not reproduce without permission.

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One Response to “Getting to the heart of poetry”
  1. Allan says:

    Kaiti, listening to your Sir Gawain piece was one of the highlights of my life – and I’m 67. Intensely moving, soothing, enchanting,AND learned by heart in a very real way. A recital to be immensely proud of and one I shall never forget. Even now, I’ve asked Roger McGough if there’s any way he can let me have a recording!! Well done indeed!!

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