Last night we watched the heart-warming film, Off By Heart, part of the BBC’s current Poetry season. The film is a record of the first national competition in which schoolchildren aged from 7 to 11 compete to recite chosen poems publicly, and of the final held in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, last month. We’ll be lucky if we see anything better on TV this year. It was not only a joyous celebration of children putting their heart and soul into poetry and performance, but also of a happily multicultural Britain.
The overall winner was Yazdan Isfahani, who spoke only Farsi when his family arrived in Britain seven years ago, seeking asylum from Iran. He beat 1,500 pupils from state and private primary schools across Britain after 57 regional heats, in which children were asked to pick one poem to perform in front of a panel of judges. The Iranian boy who learnt English as a second language emerged the winner. “It made me very proud of myself,” Yazdan told The Times. “You know that advert: ‘You don’t have to be posh to be privileged’? It’s like you don’t have to be English to learn these poems. People from other countries can do it too, and that’s what I wanted to prove.”
The schoolboy, who remembers struggling to understand the lyrics of the Scooby Doo theme tune, now reels off some of the nation’s favourite poems. There is his choice for the first round, Jim, by Hilaire Belloc — “about a boy who annoys a lion” — and there is the final judging panel’s choice, Sea Fever, by the former Poet Laureate, John Masefield — “all about a man who really, really loves the sea, but because he’s old he can’t go back there.”
And, in words that must be music to the ears of the Off by Heart organisers, Yazdan, from Middlesbrough, has also learnt to love poetry. “It’s so much fun,” he says. “I’ve learnt to be more sociable, and I’ve learnt lots of new words, like “spume” which means froth, and “whetted”, which means sharp. And it has helped me loads, especially with remembering things and keeping them stored in my head. I’m also a lot, lot more confident.”
The Off By Heart competition aims to reinvigorate the lost art of poetry recital in British schools. The documentary, directed by Antonia Bird, followed the stories of each of the 12 finalists — most of whom attended state schools. The judging panel included the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, Dawn Postans, head examiner at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and the author Philip Pullman, who said: “The performances have been extraordinary. It never ceases to amaze me when you see children as young as 7, who are initially shy and timid, transformed on stage through their love of poetry.”
Each child went through a lengthy selection process to get to the final. A remarkable 1,500 schools (nearly 10% of the nation’s primaries) put forward a child to take part in the event – a gratifyingly high number considering that a recent Ofsted report said that poetry was one of the most poorly taught subjects on the curriculum. Most schools held poetry assemblies where the children recited or performed one of 20 or so suggested poems. These ranged from Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud to Roald Dahl’s The Pig, by way of TS Eliot’s Macavity: The Mystery Cat and Talking Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah.
The finalists represented an interesting slice of modern Britain: two of the 12 children had Iranian parentage and another was a Welsh speaker. Two children were from working farms, two from independent schools, three were bilingual, four non-white. It might seem extraordinary that two of them should be of Iranian parentage, but Persia has a rich tradition of poetry (Omar Khayyam, Rumi, The Conference of the Birds) and storytelling. The winner, Yazdan, was born in Iran, spent two years in a refugee camp in Holland and moved here when he was four. He says that he wants to be “a singer, and if I don’t get that, a musician or maybe a philosopher”. The other Iranian child is a little girl from Luton who did Zephaniah’s Talking Turkeys. When the two met at a preliminary workshop, they were astonished to find another Farsi speaker there.
Another child from a rich poetic tradition was the Welsh finalist. He attends a school where all the classes are in Welsh – except for English lessons – and he performs regularly in eisteddfods. Other children had never performed before. The winner of the London heat, who is half-Nigerian and, at seven, the oldest of six children, amazed his mother by his decision to learn and perform his poem. When he came for the first finalists’ workshop, he had already learnt three more poems from the list he had been given.
Benjamin Zephaniah, Talking Turkeys
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I’m on your side.
I got lots of friends who are turkeys
An all of dem fear christmas time,
Dey wanna enjoy it, dey say humans destroyed it
An humans are out of dere mind,
Yeah, I got lots of friends who are turkeys
Dey all hav a right to a life,
Not to be caged up an genetically made up
By any farmer an his wife.
Turkeys just wanna play reggae
Turkeys just wanna hip-hop
Can yu imagine a nice young turkey saying,
‘I cannot wait for de chop’,
Turkeys like getting presents, dey wanna watch christmas TV,
Turkeys hav brains an turkeys feel pain
In many ways like yu an me.
I once knew a turkey called…Turkey
He said “Benji explain to me please,
Who put de turkey in christmas
An what happens to christmas trees?”,
I said “I am not too sure turkey
But it’s nothing to do wid Christ Mass
Humans get greedy an waste more dan need be
An business men mek loadsa cash’.
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
Invite dem indoors fe sum greens
Let dem eat cake an let dem partake
In a plate of organic grown beans,
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
An spare dem de cut of de knife,
Join Turkeys United an dey’ll be delighted
An yu will mek new friends ‘FOR LIFE’.