Poetry By Heart Blog

Will the real Helen Mackay please step forward?

17th August 2014

Library of Congress Reading Room

 

 

 

 

Poetry By Heart team member Tom Boughen reflects on the curious case of two Helen Mackays.


If you were part of Poetry By Heart 2013-14, you would know about the brand new First World War poetry showcase, introduced to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war and containing 50 poets from the UK, France, Poland, Germany and America. One poet we picked for inclusion was Helen Mackay, a Scottish nurse who assisted in the war.

The poem we attributed to her: ‘Train’, tells the story of a father saying goodbye to his children before being sent to fight at the front. It is a poignant poem and it was an emotive experience for everyone in the room to see it performed twice at our national finals.

Imagine our surprise when an email landed in our inbox from the good people at the Scottish Poetry Library, asking about this obscure Scottish poet who seemed to have hidden her poetic soul very effectively, instead working as a highly-respected doctor in London for nearly her whole life. I did a bit of digging around to find that, in one of those odd quirks of well-intentioned research, we’d followed some misleading internet sources and attributed ‘Train’ to the wrong Helen Mackay!

The Scottish Helen Mackay, whom we erroneously believed had written ‘Train’, was born in 1891 in Inverness and made groundbreaking research into dietary deficiency. She died in 1965 and by all accounts lived an extremely accomplished life as a paediatrician and as the first woman to be admitted to the Royal College of Physicians, but had never written a verse!

After this tip off from the Scottish Poetry Library and some rooting around we came across an American, a Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay. As with the Scottish Helen Mackay, her background was in medicine. She had worked as a nurse during the First World War. But a Google search turned up nothing. Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, the American poet, was far more obscure than Helen Mackay the Scottish paediatrician.

We needed help in our search, and the Library of Congress, at http://www.loc.gov/, turned out to be our new best friends. The Library has a section on their website where you can ‘Ask a Librarian’, an incredibly useful free resource in which you can – you may have guessed – ask a librarian a question relating to anything the Library of Congress might contain in its vast, hallowed halls and golden bookshelves. Search Google Images for the place; it’s an impressive structure as you can see from the image above.

After enquiring about the poet Helen Mackay, we received a reply a week later. This reply was stocked with information – archived copies of her collections of poetry, a New York Times obituary and Mackay’s entry in Lines of Fire, an illuminating book compiling biographies of female writers in the First World War. Through this information, we found out that Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, writer of ‘Train’ which is found in her collection London, One November, published in 1916 was indeed American, born in 1876. She worked in a Parisian hospital for the length of the war and was a confirmed Francophile, writing narrative sketches of French life and even writing in French herself. The New York Times obituary confirms her fluency in French (and Italian), and names her as a ‘prominent American resident of France’ and especially Paris, where she lived for fifty years. It seems that she must have taken root there after the war and remained until her death in 1961. She was the widow of Archibald Mackay, a member of a New York family with property interests, and seemingly continued her social work in the Second World War.

The American poet Helen Mackay, like many poets on our timeline, lived an exciting, eventful life worthy of a novel or poem of its own. And in common with many of those writers on our timeline, her life was steeped in literature borne out of social conscience.  It’s been fascinating to find out who she really was; thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library and the Library of Congress for helping us along the way.

 

 

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Summer Student Challenge

2nd July 2014

As the end of another summer term and another academic year approaches we know that English Departments are  always thinking of ways in which students can be encouraged to widen their reading over the holiday period. So, here are 6 ideas that make use of the Poetry By Heart website, inviting students to explore the online anthology of 200+ poems and preparing them, we hope, for enthusiastic participation in the 2015 competition.

 

Poetry By Heart – 6 Summer Holiday Activities for Students

1)   Listen to a poem
Yes, really.  Just listen to a poem.  Go to the Poetry By Heart website and click on ‘A selection from the finals’.  Sit back and enjoy the eight videos of last year’s competition finalists reciting poems.

2)   Listen to some more poems!
Explore www.poetryarchive.org and find a remarkable archive of poets reading their poems and also contemporary poets reading classic poems.

3)   Read a poem
Go to the Poetry By Heart website www.poetrybyheart.org.uk and read a poem. There are over 200 poems on the website from the year 1000 to 2014.  Go to the Anthology section and then either:

– use the Random Activity ‘Lucky Dip’ button or
– scroll through and pick a poet you like the look of or
– select the filter option from the top right and choose one of the topics you like the sound of or
– type a random word into the search box in the top right and see what comes up.

4)   Bring a poem to life
Choose a second poem and make it into a work of art.  You could:

– make a collage based on the poem
– transform the poem into a short comic strip or graphic novel or one act play
– make a short film, inspired by the poem.

5)   Write a poem
Write a poem in the style and/or form of one of the poems in the anthology. For example, there are 17 sonnets in the anthology. You can find them by simply typing ‘sonnets’ in the ‘search this site’ box on the homepage. Write your own sonnet and when you are happy with it see if you can learn the 14 lines by heart.

6)   Memorise a poem
This is a challenge but might be easier than you think.  Choose a poem from the Poetry By Heart Anthology and learn it off by heart.  Use the ‘Poetry recitation – developing a strategy’ document from the ‘Resources and Downloads’ section of the website for some top memory techniques.  Entertain your family and friends by reciting your poem and challenge them to learn one too!

If you enjoy these activities get involved in a Poetry By Heart competition at the very start of next term at your school/college and be in with the chance to win a weekend in London!  You will need to learn two poems from the Anthology in order to compete – one from before and one from after 1914 and you will need to be aged between 14 and 18.  Check out those videos of last year’s winners for inspiration and remember that judges will be looking not for the best actor but the reciter who can really share an understanding and heart felt appreciation of their chosen poems with an audience.

Full details of the competition can be found at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk or by emailing the Poetry By Heart team info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.  You can also follow us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/poetrybyheartcompetition and Twitter @poetrybyheart or give us a call on 0117 9055338.

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Poetry By Heart Off To Flying Start

1st July 2014

Poetry By Heart team member Mike Dixon reports on the launch of Poetry By Heart 2015 at the NATE conference in Bristol – June 27th to June 29th 2014.

The magnificent Palm Court within the Bristol Marriott Royal hotel was the setting for the launch of Poetry By Heart 2015 on the second day of a superbly organised and stimulating NATE conference in Bristol.

To have an opportunity to talk about the aims of Poetry By Heart with colleagues from so many different parts of the English teaching sector was invaluable and to be able to enjoy entertaining and thought provoking talks by the likes of Michael Rosen, Anthony Wilson and Christopher Edge, to name but three, was a delightful bonus.

The Poetry By Heart team had hoped for a good audience, cunningly staging the launch immediately after a mesmerising reading by poet and Poetry By Heart judge Patience Agbabi of extracts from her new, Chaucer inspired book, “Telling Tales”. And in a belt and braces approach to attracting a sizeable audience we also tempted delegates with the offer of a glass of refreshing, pre-dinner wine. Even so by the 6.30pm start time of the launch we were still overwhelmed to see more than 150 delegates had gathered to hear more about the competition and to enjoy some recitations. Inspirational co-founders and co-directors of Poetry By Heart, Julie Blake and Sir Andrew Motion talked about the ethos behind the project and the way in which more and more schools and colleges of all kinds are embracing the competition. Sir Andrew recited a Hardy poem for the audience and read one of his own hauntingly beautiful recent poems, ‘The Fish in Australia’ which can be seen in the Poetry By Heart online anthology.

Patience Agbabi spoke about her experiences as a judge over the last couple of years and how impressed s

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Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

Julie Blake chooses the eight poems she would take with her to a desert island from the Poetry By Heart anthology.

My “Desert Island Poems” challenge had all the usual problems of narrowing the choice to just eight, though at least I only had 206 poems to choose from and I already knew some so well that they would have been wasted choices. Instead, I’ve chosen poems because I love them but don’t have them by heart, and in my long months of solitude I’ll change that.

My first two poems will remind me of family. My grandmother can probably still recite ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’, the first line of Felicia Hemans’ ‘Casabianca’. Catherine Robson’s history, ‘Heartbeats: everyday life and the memorized poem’, has helped me understand why my grandmother would always break off at this point and mutter darkly about all poetry being rubbish. I should like to be able to finish the poem for her. Meanwhile, my grandfather left Scotland at a young age to find his fortune in London; only when he went back at the age of 72 to marry his second wife did he start celebrating Burns night but he died soon after and I’ll never know whether he had a poem. I’ll take ‘Ae fond kiss’ with me and make sure I do. Though the BBC’s recording of Alec Salmond reciting ‘A man’s a man for a’that’ is so gorgeous I may need that as my luxury.

The Scottish connection continues though it’s less about roots and much more about sound: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. I’m a sucker for strongly metrical rhyming poetry – always have been, always will be, and I’m not going to apologise for it now! And it’s funny…

I didn’t know the next two poems at all before Poetry By Heart. Poets Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland selected the anthology and I guided them in avoiding curriculum clunkers and making sure the timeline was balanced. Charlotte Smith’s ‘On being cautioned…’ duly entered as a must-have sonnet. Its setting is Beachy Head, a place I know well having taught for ten years next door to the hospital to which the suicides are helicoptered. The poem will remind me of the pleasures of teaching – and the madness of walking on headlands. Meredith’s poem simply took my breath away with its super-saturated darkness.

My sixth poem has a different kind of darkness. I taught ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ many times and, being a bigger fan of Margaret Atwood’s poetry than her fiction, always started with her poem ‘Notes towards a poem that can never be written’, dedicated to Carolyn Forché. Forché’s poems can be unremitting in their gaze on the horror of our times, and ‘The Colonel’ is especially so. Jennifer O’Sullivan’s performance of it at the 2014 finals is one I’m sure I’ll never forget.

My final two poems will remind me of Poetry By Heart as they are written by two of our poet-judges. I adore tricky forms and Patience Agbabi’s ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’ makes me grin with delight at its technical accomplishment, the second half of the poem a delicious mirroring of the first. And, oh, those Brixton nights…

I can hardly believe how much Poetry By Heart has achieved three years after Andrew Motion and I first talked about it: it’s been immensely hard work by a committed team but also such intense pleasure in hearing young people share the poems they’ve loved and learned. My final choice is Andrew’s new poem ‘The fish in Australia’.  I’ve heard him read it twice and now always hear the cadences of his voice in it. I might learn this one silently and keep it that way.

So if you get the call from the Kirsty Young of the poetry world, which eight poems would you take to keep you company on your sun-kissed desert island?

Julie’s choices

Casabianca (Felicia Hemans)
Ae fond kiss (Robert Burns)
Bagpipe music (Louis MacNeice)
On being cautioned… (Charlotte Smith)
Lucifer in starlight (George Meredith)
The colonel (Carolyn Forché)
Josephine Baker finds herself (Patience Agbabi)
The fish in Australia (Andrew Motion)

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