The joy of learning poetry by heart has led to a Gateshead student and her teacher winning the honour of representing the region at a National Poetry Day event led by former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion.
Mary Winn, 17, who goes to Emmanuel College, will perform a recitation at the National Portrait Gallery after being chosen as a finalist in the inaugural national poetry competition, Learning by Heart.
Her English teacher Marie McHugh is the only teacher invited to speak at the event alongside gallery director Sandy Nairne and Sir Andrew, who started the poetry initiative which is open to schools across Britain.
Mary won a regional round held at Newcastle library before being selected as the overall winner for the north following a faultless recitation of The Applicant by Sylvia Plath and a 17th Century sonnet by Charlotte Smith at a winners’ event in London.
On Thursday – National Poetry Day – she will recite the Plath poem again to launch the second year of the competition.
Mary said: “Sylvia Plath is my favourite poet so that was an easy choice. The sonnet was very, very difficult to interpret but I was interested in it because it’s by a woman and we don’t often get to hear the voice of a woman in the 17th Century. I also thought her theme of madness being better than intelligence because it protects you from bad things in the world was quite interesting.”
Mary, who is studying A levels in English literature, English language, history and religious education and wants to be a journalist, has been coached by Mrs McHugh, and practised in front of the mirror at home.
“During the competition I saw a lot of people dramatising the poems but I realised the emphasis should be on using your voice to convey what you get personally from the poetry and to make sure that every word counts. I also kept my normal accent to keep it real,” Mary added.
Mrs McHugh, who describes herself as ‘retired and returned’ having been Head of English at Emmanuel before retiring in 2005 only to come back, will speak on the importance of learning poetry by heart.
She said: “As a form of learning it went out of fashion for a long time but my experience is that young people love to be able to recite poetry by heart for the sense of power and pleasure it gives them.
“It requires discipline and gives you an internal repertoire, an armoury to make connections to use later in life, and that is the hallmark of an educated person.”
Alongside the Learning by Heart competition, Sir Andrew has developed an online archive of selected poems from the 14th Century to the present day.
Mrs McHugh added: “We have always held prose and poetry competitions at Emmanuel College but it’s not common in state schools. The archive is a wonderful resource which all schools can access and I would encourage them to use it.”