At a time when so many youngsters are glued to their Xboxes and mobile phones, communicating by grunts, emojis and abbreviations (LOL), it’s time we rose ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ and shouted about the benefits of learning the words by heart of the Bard, Michael Rosen or whoever their favourite poet might be.
After all, learning poetry by heart isn’t just fun for children, it’s really important for their education with proven benefits for memory, concentration, speed of learning and speech.
So I’d like schools across the nation to join me in taking up the cudgel and get involved in Poetry Together – a new national poetry initiative that brings young and old together. The idea is that pupils learn a piece of poetry by heart, link up with a local care home whose residents learn the same poem, then recite it together at a fun tea party hosted by either the school or the care home.
The initiative came about as a result of my own love of poetry. One of my fondest memories from my childhood is of performing ‘Macavity the Mystery Cat’ at my local church to its author, T S Eliot, who was 70 years old at the time. Over the years, I’ve always encouraged others to read poetry and my first BBC radio series in 1971 was a panel game all about poetry called ‘A Rhyme in Time’.
Then just last year, I had the opportunity to make a radio programme about the value of learning poetry featuring research undertaken in the Memory Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, which showed how learning and speaking poetry benefits both younger and older people alike.
In infants and young children, engaging with poetry can improve the speed at which they learn to speak, read and write; it can improve performance academically at school, improve concentration and even support better sleep. Teachers have told me they have found learning poetry by rote and performing it together improves wellbeing in the classroom. It’s involving, satisfying, and fun.
For adults, evidence shows that reciting poetry can give you a happier and more successful life. It improves the ability to communicate and strengthen relationships, improves memory, increases brain capacity and keeps dementia at bay.
I had the pleasure of launching the event with a group of Chelsea Pensioners, retired army veterans who reside at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea who are recognised for their rather resplendent scarlet coats. They were joined by a group of schoolchildren from local schools at the nearby National Army Museum, which has a fabulous educational programme for young people, and the joy on their faces as they recited poetry together said it all.
We want as many schools as possible to participate. All you have to do is register on the www.PoetryTogether.com website, agree which poem your pupils will learn, then get together with a residential care home near you to make it happen. The summer break will give everyone an opportunity to learn their poem of choice in readiness. Arrangements can then focus on the informal tea-and-poetry party to take place, between 3 and 17 October – the fortnight following National Poetry Day.
For anyone interested, there are plenty of resources on our website. Every school taking part will receive a certificate and a free signed copy of my new poetry anthology, ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon’, which is being published this autumn. Schools can also make the most of the traditional and social media opportunities which arise, including sharing their poetry via the Poetry Together social media channels: Instagram @poetry_together, Twitter @poetry_together, Facebook @poetrytogetherproject
So whether your school children prefer Shakespeare to Wordsworth, WH Auden to Benjamin Zephaniah, or whether they prefer rap or rhyme, ancient or modern, serious or funny, we do hope they will take part in Poetry Together and share in the joy of learning poetry.
Gyles Brandreth was a headline speaker at the Festival for Education held on 20-21 June.