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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Learn Poetry 'By Heart,' Not By Rote

by NPR Staff
Emily Musette Hays performs in the 2012 Poetry Out Loud finals in Washington, D.C. The U.S. competition served as a model for the U.K.'s Poetry By Heart contest.
James Kegley/The Poetry Foundation
When the Internet offers a superabundance of material to read, watch, listen to and play, it's easy to skim over text and half-listen to broadcasts. But the British government is inviting schoolchildren to put down their cellphones, turn off their news feeds and spend a long time lingering over a poem — so long that they learn it by heart.

The United Kingdom's Department for Education is funding a nationwide poetry-reciting contest called Poetry By Heart, similar in structure to Poetry Out Loud in the U.S. and other poetry competitions in Canada and Ireland. The contest, at the county level, requires students to memorize two poems from a list of 130 choices and recite the poems by heart in a series of competitions.

English poet Jean Sprackland helped select the poems at the heart of the contest. She joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the pleasures of poetry memorization.

Interview Highlights

On learning by heart, not by rote
"Well, I suppose there's a great difference between learning by heart and the old-fashioned, rather dusty phrase 'learning by rote.' So there's a thought that if you learn by heart it means you take the poem right into yourself, it becomes part of you. And it remains with you, probably for the rest of your life. I think a lot of us can remember bits of poetry that we learned when we were very young. So it's something that lives with you forever."

On selecting the poems for Poetry By Heart
"We wanted to represent a great variety, a great richness of different sorts of poems in there. So it starts — the earliest poem is a 14th-century poem called 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,' by an anonymous poet, and then we go right up to the present day. ... We wanted to build a lot of variety into there so that young people could choose something to memorize and read aloud that appealed to them and that really was exciting and enjoyable for them to engage with. And we chose everything with that in mind, with memorizing and speaking aloud in mind. But as you can imagine, it was a terrifically difficult set of decisions to make because with anything like this there are always many, many more poems that you would like to include. And this is just for the first year, so we're hoping that the selection will grow and change as the competition continues in future years."

On a poem she learned by heart
"One of the first poems that I began to learn was [John] Keat's 'Ode to a Nightingale,' which of course I know as an adult is one of the great English Romantic poems and is full of all this stuff about the ephemeral nature of love and youth and life. But I think probably as a 10- or 11-year-old I didn't know that at all. I just loved the sound of the words, and the sound of the words held meaning for me and the way the words tasted and felt in my mouth when I spoke them. So that's what I first loved about the poem, and then it's been a lifelong love affair. I've read the poem so many hundreds of times and remembered it and gone through it in my own head when there's nothing else that I need to be doing. So I think that's a good example, really, of how you can learn something very early in your life and it lives with you always."

Welcome To Alaska, Where Winter Is Cold And Bikes Are Fat


Audio for this story from Weekend Edition Sunday click here.

Bike shop owner Kevin Breitenbach rides a fat bike in the White Mountains National Recreation Area in Alaska in March.
The plummeting mercury in Alaska this time of year doesn't keep bikers inside. More and more of them are heading to recreational trails and to the office on "fat bikes." They look like mountain bikes on steroids, with tires wider than most people's arms.

Kevin Breitenbach runs the bike shop at Beaver Sports in Alaska's second-largest city. He makes his way down a trail that winds through a forest, and wet, quarter-sized snowflakes drop from the sky. Visibility is low, and the snow hides the roughest spots on the trail.

His bike is Breitenbach's primary form of transportation. When he's not commuting to work, he's racing in ultra-distance events.

"Now if we were out here on regular mountain bikes, you'd just be all over the place. The bikes are set up to be stable, and so you can go much slower and still maintain your balance," he says.

The wider tires on fat bikes roll over the snow better than regular mountain bikes. The first fat bikes were made by welding the rims of three mountain bikes together.
The wider tires on fat bikes roll over the snow better than regular mountain bikes. The first fat bikes were made by welding the rims of three mountain bikes together.

In the late 1980s, cyclists in Alaska were looking for a good way to tackle snowy trails, so they welded three mountain bike rims together. That allowed for fatter tires that almost float on top of the snow. Today, fat biking isn't quite so "do it yourself."

The market for a bike like this is still small, but it's the fastest-growing segment of the cycling industry. At Goldstream Sports, just north of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, owner Joel Buth specializes in cross-country skis and road bikes. But four years ago, he added fat bikes to his winter inventory.

"The bikes are typically a $3,000 sale, versus a ski package, which is much less. So there's more customers in the ski, but the bike market is growing rapidly," he says.

That $3,000 isn't just for the bike. It includes all the other gear as well, like extra tire tubes, shoes and lots of winter clothing. It's the fat bike clientele that surprises Buth most.

"Mostly what I see is the backcountry enthusiast and older couples, too, that just want to get out and get exercise in the winter and don't want to mess around with skis, and they just like to bike," he says.

Back on the trail, Breitenbach says fat biking is more fun than skiing, even when temperatures hit 50 degrees below zero.

Presidents Use Bully Pulpit To Shape American Language In 'Words'

by NPR Staff
Audio for this story from Weekend Edition Sunday click here.
Words from the White House
Words From The White House
Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents
Hardcover, 197 pages purchase
The office of the president offers a lot of responsibilities and privileges. Your actions drive the world's most powerful military, billions of dollars worth of domestic policy and, perhaps most importantly, the way the country speaks.

That's what linguist and writer Paul Dickson contends in his new book, Words From the White House. It's a look back through history at the words and phrases popularized by our presidents — including the ones they don't get credit for anymore.

Teddy Roosevelt, for example, loved language, Dickson tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "He would create a word like 'mollycoddle,' for sort of somebody you would say was timid, and 'bully pulpit,' you know, the bully pulpit being the presidency itself." Presidents, Dickson says, have to be eloquent. "They have to be able to get up there and convince people."

Dickson says the most eloquent and convincing president was Thomas Jefferson. "To this day, in the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 114 terms which are laid at his feet — either pure coinages or him being the first to use it," he says. "And some of them are quite interesting."

Did you know that Jefferson was apparently the first to use the word "ottoman" to refer not to the empire, but to the footstool? And Dickson says words like "pedicure" and "lengthily" are also attributed to our third president — along with, appropriately enough, "neologize."

"He writes a letter to John Adams, who's another very good creator of language, ... and says, 'It's our obligation as Americans to neologize, to create a new language, which is the American language,' " Dickson says. That language would be full of Americanisms like "OK" and "slam dunk," which might be sneered at by a speaker of the King's English.

The new American language is curter and more direct. "You say mob instead of 'a large group of angry people.' That's Americanism," he says.
Paul Dickson is the author of more than 55 books. His latest, Words From the White House, describes the lexical innovations of America's presidents.

In the modern era, Dickson points to Harry Truman as a master of presidential language. "He brought back old folk terms like 'snallygaster,' and he had wonderful slogans like 'the buck stops here.' " One of the most interesting terms Truman brought back, Dickson says, was the word "trocar," which was an instrument farmers used in rural Missouri, where he was from, "when a bull or a cow had eaten too much clover and had amassed a huge amount of gas inside of them. ... They would use this instrument to allow the gas to come out through the proper orifice." There was, he adds, the occasional joke about a whistling noise sounding across the plains when farmers applied the trocar to their livestock.

"Truman actually, in a letter to one of his aides, said that he felt ... 'somebody should take a trocar to Congress and use it to deflate the egos,' " Dickson says. "I like Truman's stuff because he was a very plain-speaking man who used these rural things that were probably a great puzzlement to more urban people."
Speaking of plain-spoken, George W. Bush also makes an appearance in the book. Bush was known for scripted phrases like "Axis of Evil," but also spontaneous utterances like "embetter."

"I gave him the benefit of the doubt because everybody was howling and yelling and screaming ... 'embetter' was first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the same exact meaning that George Bush gave it, in 1583," Dickson says, though it has since dwindled into obscurity.

Likewise, the OED traces "resignate" all the way back to 1531. "One of the ones they really tried to nail him with was 'strategery,' " says Dickson. "Which of course was not Bush himself but was Saturday Night Live ... but 'misunderestimate,' which was one of the real howlers that a lot of people cited, is actually fairly useful."

Presidents need to be spontaneous, but also have a good understanding of the language in order to coin new words, Dickson says. "When Roosevelt first gave his fireside chats to coach the country out of the Depression, [he] made a very conscious decision to use the language of baseball, as opposed to the language of politics. ... The president, in order to be a really good communicator, has to realize that he can't talk to the people with the same metaphor they would talk to, you know, someone in his party hierarchy, that if he really wants to get to people, he's got to give them something they can latch onto."

Read an excerpt of Words From The White House