Poetry For Life 2016

Poetry for Life

Poetry for Life

Poetry for Life (PfL) held the finals of its second annual competition on 13 May 2016 at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. PfL is a national South African High-School Poetry Recitation Competition, affiliated to similar competitions across the world: Poetry by Heart (England); Poetry by Heart Scotland; Poetry Aloud (Ireland); Poetry Out Loud (USA); Poetry in Voice (Canada). They are joined this year by the Talk the Poem competition in Jamaica. The idea and format for PfL was based on the well-established version of this competition in England, and the international poems were chosen mainly from the Poetry by Heart Anthology. However, the South African poetry selection is unique to PfL.

In this, its second year, contestants from Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu-Natal and the Western Cape Provinces took part in the competition. In the Western Cape, excellent support was received from the Department of Education; all three Provinces were also supported by the Independent Examination Board Schools. Nineteen schools from the Western Cape entered this year (fewer than last year, but still more than the other Provinces). There were eight finalists at Franschhoek – one from Kwa-Zulu-Natal, two from Gauteng, and five from the Western Cape. The representative numbers in the National Finals was determined by the number of schools which entered from each Province, and the fact that the Finals were held in the Western Cape, making attendance at the venue more readily available to the Western Cape schools. Our vision for the future is to include competitors from all nine South African Provinces in the Finals. We are also looking forward to hold the National Finals in different Provinces.

The initial rounds of the competition were held within the schools. The best competitor from each school in the Western Cape progressed to the regional competitions. In each round of the competition, after the school heats, the competitors had to memorise and recite two poems, from a pre-selected list of a] international poems and b] South African poems. You can find all of these poems on our website 

The top eight finalists performed brilliantly at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. They were supported by funding from Cambridge University. The competition was held in one of the largest Festival venues, to a full house. We were honoured to have as our judges the well-known South African poet, Isobel Dixon; equally well-known poet and novelist, Leon de Kock; and Linda Koama, who is both a poet and the Manager of Badilisha Poetry Radio Exchange, a platform dedicated to showcasing poetry from Africa, on the internet and through podcasts. Poet, novelist and scholar, Finuala Dowling, was the perfect host, making the students and audience feel relaxed and entertained. The audience for the event included the competitors’ supporters, students from other schools and members of the public, who were surprised and enthralled by the quality of the recitations. South African 16 – 18 year olds brought the words of poets alive in entertaining, moving and distinctive ways.

Israeel Davids, a Grade 11 student from Kensington High School, Cape Town, was pronounced the winner, for his rendition of Tennyson’s Ulysses and I expect more from you, by Vangile Gantsho. 

The runners-up were Nontuthuzelo Ncasa, from Oaklands High School, Lansdowne, Cape Town, reciting Prayer before Birth by Louis McNeice and My Name by Magoleng wa Selepe; and Alessia Lederer from Rhenish Girls’ High School, Stellenbosch, who recited The Listeners by Walter de la Mere and Ingrid de Kok’s Today I do not love my country. 

After the competition, and as part of their prize for entering and reaching the Finals, the learners spent Friday night and Saturday at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. One of the highlights for them was attending the Poetry at Essence reading and dinner, where they performed their poems alongside seasoned and local poets. The contribution of the young people was a highlight of the evening – they were some of the best performers, because they knew their poems and could, therefore, connect with the audience. They also attended several shows at the Festival, and spent a wonderful Friday night together at the guesthouse, playing the piano and singing, and getting to know each other.

It is difficult to convey in words the fun those finalists had at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, and to describe how captivated the audiences were who watched the various rounds of the competition, seeing poetry alive! It is definitely worth encouraging, as it benefits audiences and competitors alike.

PfL 2016 would not have been possible without the continued support of Cambridge University, England; and Fazeela Haffejee, Head of English for the Western Cape Department of Education, and all her regional heads, for promoting the competition with passion.

We plan to hold a workshop for teachers in the Western Cape in the third term of this year, to encourage teachers to enter their schools for next year, and to start early with their school competitions. We hope that this competition will grow from strength to strength, and that in 2017 many more schools from around the country will enter, so that within a few years many of our learners will leave school with the words of poets ringing in their ears – for life.

Celia van Druten


May 2016