A few months ago I was asked to be a member of the panel judging the North of Scotland heat of the BBC’s ‘Off By Heart’ competition. We picked a young girl called Thalia who, in our judgment, had best understood, memorised and performed the poem she’d chosen from the list. Her interpretation was animated, informed and enjoyable, and she was our unanimous choice. The following week she went on to the Scottish final, in which I was not involved, and which she won, I’m glad to say.
Last Friday she was in the televised final of the competition, and although she didn’t win it, it was good to see her there, not in the least troubled by having to perform in front of an audience at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, with Jeremy Paxman presenting the programme. Whatever she does in future, I wish her well. I was very much impressed by the winner, originally from Iran. Maybe too many hand gestures for my taste, but his voice was beautifully controlled and modulated. He wanted to be an actor, but if he couldn’t be that, he’d be a musician, and if he couldn’t be that, he’d be a philosopher.
The competition involved primary schools selecting entries from their pupils, so I guess there must have been a huge number of children learning poetry by heart, and performing it to their peers. I’m sure it increased the profile of poetry reading in schools. My mother, who will be 90 this year, tells me she remembers learning poetry by heart and reciting it in class, as a 7-year old. A potent and empowering experience in her case.
It was interesting to note how many of the finalists had chosen Roald Dahl’s Little Red Hiding Hood as their second poem.
On Saturday I watched Jeremy Paxman’s programme about Wilfred Owen, his (and my) favourite poet of the First World War. Having not long returned from my own trip to the Somme, I found it poignant and moving. Owen wrote, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The pity is in the poetry.” It is; it assuredly is.