Julie Blake of Poetry By Heart explains how the competition has been re-imagining the children’s poetry anthology for the digital age
My lifelong love of children’s poetry anthologies started with a treasured, hard-won copy of the Puffin Book of Children’s Verse when I was about 8 years old but to cut a long story short, since 2012 I have co-directed Poetry By Heart. This is a poetry speaking competition for schoolchildren supported by a website with poems and resources for teaching and learning about poetry. The poems are curated, edited and mediated in the form of digital anthologies. But what does it mean to create a born-digital anthology? In exploring how we have resolved the issues so far, you can freely browse our Timeline Anthologies and other Showcase poetry collections at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk.
It is perhaps a little obvious to say that the linear sequence, limited content and weighable materiality of the printed book is quite different from the global, weightless mesh of interconnected threads of a website. But it’s more complex when you are looking at the practical ramifications for a digital children’s poetry anthology.
First, it’s almost impossible not to include pictures, audio and video. But it’s much easier to drop individual pictures into page blocks than it is to create the beautifully illustrated colour pages of traditional children’s poetry anthologies. We made the Timeline Anthologies visual through the use of licensed reproductions of paintings, drawings or photographs of the poets. This had pedagogical purposes too: we could represent poetry as the creative work of real people and as an artform connected to other artforms. We added audio through licensed links to Poetry Archive recordings of poets and we added video clips of young people performing poems in the Poetry By Heart competitions (with parental consent). The technical ease of adding videos to a carousel enables users to watch one performance after another of the same poem and to see poetry performance as an embodied mode of literary appreciation (an important idea developed in other contexts by Professor David Fuller).
We thought hard about the mesh of interconnection and its double-edged potential for deepening reading and distracting reading. We erred on the side of deepening. The poems link to each other simply through their position on the digital timeline and a small set of thematic tags. The poems can link outwards too: through links licensed by Oxford University Press to the Dictionary of National Biography, word histories in the Oxford English Dictionary, and original spelling versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The latter are also supported by licensed links to British Library facsimiles of the 1609 first edition. The contextual links offer greater depth without distracting from the encounter with the poem. Parsimonious linkage also works in a mundane way, saving some of the inevitable work of fixing broken links.
The anthology as genre
The second issue is what happens to a historic print genre that has been evolving since 1557 when it is remediated for digital use. How do you navigate an environment in which web users expect everything to be available? The accessibility of the digital domain makes it possible for everyone to be an anthology editor, commonly in the form of personal poetry blogs, and no-one, as when multiple users source and upload poems to vast ungated repositories. But while these are interesting phenomena, they are not the same as anthologies carefully curated by poets and educators with deep knowledge of poetry, curriculum and children and young people.
The Poetry By Heart Timeline Anthologies and showcase collections have benefited from the editorial expertise of poets Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland, children’s poetry experts at Cambridge University, Professor Morag Styles and David Whitley, and my encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry in the school curriculum and school anthologies. Teachers value that curation for different reasons – not having to wade through infinite possibilities, not having to worry about copyright and accuracy issues, and being able to trust that the poems are broadly suitable for their pupils. They also value having the pedagogical framing they are used to from printed school anthologies in the form of notes about poets and poems, and activities to build on in developing lessons. To see a poem with all this framing, in the 11+ Timeline Anthology, Mary Coleridge’s ‘The Witch’ is a useful example. What is not visible is the amount of staff time in digital content management, very precise editorial writing and the (very nice) work developing and maintaining external content partnerships. It’s certainly not easier to produce a digital anthology.
Choosing children’s poetry
Poetry anthologies are often derided by literary purists as being substandard by comparison with single author volumes, though they are perennially popular with publishers and readers. As well as supporting readers with a broad, general and perhaps untutored interest in poetry, the anthology has its own pleasures – unexpected juxtapositions, finding old friends and discovering new treasures. But anthologists tend to follow anthologists and it’s very easy for the same few poems by the same poets to dominate. In creating the 7+ and 11+ Timeline Anthologies for Poetry By Heart we set out to re-stock the gene pool of children’s poetry anthologies. With no time to go back to original sources ourselves, we drew on the work of three pioneering anthologists of children’s poetry.
The first two anthologists are Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby, Literature professors at universities in the United States. Their phenomenal work of literary recovery, Over the River and Through the Wood, is an anthology of 19th-century poems for American children that appeared in magazines and collections that are little known today. From this we sourced new poems by poets we already knew such as Laura Richards’ ‘Howl about an Owl’ and Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s ‘The Story of Grumble Tone’. We sourced poems by poets that were new to us – Gertrude Heath’s ‘What the Fly Thinks’, Margaret McBride Hoss’s ‘The Land where the Taffy Birds Grow’ and E. Pauline Johnson’s ‘Lullaby of the Iroquois’. Many of these poems were immediately chosen by children for the competition and spoken with great relish.
The second source we used was The Golden Slippers, an anthology edited for black children in the United States by Harlem Renaissance poet, author and friend of Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps. We included simple fun poems like ‘Bats’ by Mary Effie Lee Newsome, editor of the children’s section of the hugely influential The Crisis magazine; Georgia Douglas Johnson’s ‘I’ve learned to sing a song of hope’ became a lockdown anthem as we taught PGCE trainees to recite it in our workshop program last year, and we would gladly include Langston Hughes’s entire oeuvre. Teachers and young people tell us of their surprise and a delight it is to find historic black poets – though the sepia photographs don’t always make those identities evident.
When we started Poetry By Heart we asked our American counterparts at Poetry Out Loud to give us one piece of advice. They said “don’t do a print anthology” on the basis that once it’s printed, you can’t change it. We love the capacity of the digital anthology for change but our next challenge is to think about what the born-digital anthology might mean for new kinds of printed anthology.
If you would like to know more about anything mentioned in this article, please get in touch via email@example.com or @poetrybyheart.
Dr Julie Blake is Director of Poetry By Heart which she founded with Sir Andrew Motion in 2012. In this role she curates digital poetry anthologies and resources for children and young people to choose poems, learn them by heart and perform them aloud, and she organises the annual Poetry By Heart poetry speaking competition for schools.