Poetry for Life



Poetry for Life is an initiative started in 2014 by a group of South Africans inspired by poetry enthusiasts in other countries who have started a drive to revive the ancient art of learning and reciting poetry.

There is a growing realization in creative communities across the world that much of the beauty and value of poetry is being lost because young people today are discouraged from learning by rote, but in the process aspects of their education are being lost.  One of these is the ability to stand up and say a poem, not just read it from a text in front of them.  So much of the music and meaning of poetry is missed, as well as the ability to recall and repeat appropriate beautifully devised lines.

In the past few years, passionate people in the USA, Canada, Ireland and England have each introduced national poetry-speaking competitions, held annually and culminating in an international competition between the participating countries. In each country the poetry competition is run under a different name, but the objective is the same - to encourage senior school students to learn and recite poetry.

Inspired by this, in particular the achievements of the program in England, initiated by Cambridge University, in conjunction with the South African Poetry Project (ZAPP) - a group whose desire is to promote South African poetry - supported by the Commonwealth Education Trust (CET) we have created Poetry for Life in South Africa. It is hoped that this will become an annual national competition, open to Grade 10 to 12 students across the country.

The competition will comprise two sections, and each competitor will be required to learn and recite two poems from a list of poems chosen by the organizers. For 2015 we have selected 55 international poems from the list used by the poetry program in the UK (Poetry by Heart); and 55 South African poems selected by ZAPP. The competitors will need to recite one poem from each of these lists.

The 55 international poems cover a period from Shakespeare's time up until the mid-20th century, they cover a wide range of styles and themes, the average poem is around 80 lines, there are a few sonnets and some longer poems.

The South African poems also provide a variety of styles and themes these poems are in general more modern, and deal predominantly with concerns specific to recent South African history and current issues. Again there are longer and shorter poems.

The participants are required to memorise their chosen poems, and then to interpret them in performance. The process of selecting, memorizing and reciting encourages discretion, concentration, practice, repetition and a range of thought processes that build and extend language skills. According to Charles Simic, literature is "the defense of the individual against all generalizations that seek to enclose reality in a single conceptual system." Literature helps us to think, and increasingly we are seeing the lack of reading in the thinking abilities of students at university level. A project like Poetry for Life has the potential to inspire learners to develop the most important habit of an educated person: reading.

Memorising poetry involves internalising the architecture of a poem, the words and more importantly the connections between the words - the particular genius of the pot. It is a way of owning the world - a world that might be very different from your own. It is a way of traveling. This exercise will build the learners' inner library of references and give them access to the vast and possibly limitless resources of human thought that crosses national and language boundaries.