Poetry by Heart – The Story

par | Oct 5, 2023 | Uncategorized

ELSA Poetry by Heart France is now into its 10th year and what a year it has been. The competition here in France has continued to grow since we began way back in 2015 with just a handful of Parisian schools taking part in the High School competition.

We now have more schools involved than ever (including some from outside of Paris), and three different levels of competition running this year: Primary, Middle School and High School.

With the kind support of Julie Blake and Tim Shortis, our aim is to expand further and encourage even more schools to join us next year.

One of our key aims in setting up this competition here in France was to encourage our students to develop a close relationship with and love of poetry in English. We have found that the competition is ideal for this as it allows students to explore a wide variety of poetry (from across continents and time periods), before choosing a poem that they personally engage with and feel passionate about.

For us, the competition is worlds away from a more academic approach and truly allows students to reflect on the emotional impact that words can have on an audience. All of the students that take part in the competition each year express their enjoyment at being given the freedom to make that choice – and this year in particular, the judges remarked on the fabulous collection of poems that were presented to them by the students.

What was fascinating to see was how some students made canonical choices, reciting these in a way that gave the judges a new understanding of the poems, while other students went for more unusual choices, picking poems whose originality made them a real delight to hear recited.

What was clear from all of the choices made was that the students had developed a deep connection with their chosen poem, a connection that meant they were able to step out in front of a crowd of largely unknown people and use words and intonation and pace to take those people on an emotional journey.

On Friday March 10th, our Middle School Competition took place. Thanks to the hard work and enthusiasm of its organizer, Chelsea Kaspereit, twenty-one schools gathered at the Institut LaTour to celebrate poetry. The number of schools entering at this level has been growing every year and it was clear from the buzz and excitement on the day that the students could not wait to take part.

What added to the enjoyment was hearing students make such original, daring and exciting choices of poems, and who could remain unmoved seeing these young performers step out on the vast stage and impart their own interpretation of a poem in front of a crowd of family, friends and guests.

It was a truly magical evening. With barely any time to rest, our celebration of poetry continued the next day, but this time with the older students in our High School Competition. Once again, as 42 students came together from 13 schools from around France there was a real sense of a shared love of poetry and of recital. This time students competed twice, reciting first of all a poem from the Pre-WW1 list, and then reciting a second poem from the post-WW1 list.

Hearing students recite two poems is the perfect opportunity to marvel at how skilful they are at dealing with different emotional content and tone, and how they manage to use their voice and intonation to reflect this.

For international, bilingual and Anglophone sections here in France, this competition does much more than just give students a chance to recite poetry, (which in itself is great), as it also allows us to come together as a community and create close ties and bonds. The students who take part also act as ambassadors as they go back to our classrooms after the event and help to create excitement and passion for poetry.

At a time when some students have little connection with poetry, this competition is a positive force for encouraging students to read more poetry, take delight in hearing poetry being recited, and even to write their own poetry. Needless to say, we are already excited and eager for Poetry by Heart 2024!

Antony McDermott, ELSA Poetry by Heart Coordinator