I propose universal saying lessons in English poetry. I propose that this should involve learning two or three poems a term, off by heart. And if necessary let's put the best declaimers on TV and get them judged by Simon Cowell. – Boris Johnson
I don’t recall ever being required to memorise poetry as a kid. That doesn’t signify very much because I sometimes find it hard to remember even being a kid. I have photos so I know I was but the whole poetry thing I struggle with. The very first memory I have of poetry in the real world (discounting nursery rhymes) was in Primary 6 which would make me about ten. I remember one of the boys, Neil, a boy with a particularly gruff and aggressive Scottish accent, reciting ‘Scots Wha Hae’ in front of the entire class but I can’t picture him holding a scrap of paper so he must have been doing it from memory. He grew up to be a rather gruff and aggressive man, angry at the world for no other reason than it was in his nature. I’ve not seen him in a good twenty years. He may well have burst a blood vessel and dropped dead for all I know.
But back to the poetry. I remember him reading that day, I even remember enjoying the reading which is why I guess it’s stayed with me all this time, but I don’t remember me reading. In fact I have no recollection of ever reading a poem publicly. I can’t imagine wangling my way through my entire schooling without having to memorise at least one poem. But maybe I was lucky.
If you were to ask me just now to recite a poem from memory, even one of my own, I doubt I could do it, not with any confidence at any rate. I could just about sing along to any song on Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall but I couldn’t do it on my own, I’d need the album playing. I am perpetually amazed by actors who can reel off pages and pages of dialogue without batting an eye.
All of this has made me wonder if memorisation is still a part of our education system: do kids still chant the times tables for instance? Those I can still do. To the best of my knowledge progressive educators don’t like rote learning and the fact that it dates back into antiquity – Greek schoolboys used to have to memorise the poetry of Homer – doesn’t seem to count for anything these days. ‘Antiquity’ just means ‘old fashioned’ which means ‘out of date’.
Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, argues that memorisation “builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax.” The student “who memorises poetry will internalise” the “rhythmic, beautiful patterns” of the English language. These patterns then become “part of the student’s ‘language store,’ those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking.” Without memorisation, the student’s “language store,” Bauer says, will be limited: memorisation stocks “the language store with a whole new set of language patterns.”
Language can be complex. It doesn’t have to be. It can be very simple. Let’s take music by comparison. You can sit and bang on a can and make music. You can alter the pitch, the rhythm and the volume depending how and with what you hit it with. It’s still music. Or you can do what Charles Ives did, have your orchestra split down the middle playing two different tunes, in different keys, at different speeds, with different time signatures and the first time you hear it it’s just this wall of noise; how could that possibly be music? But it is. And it’s fun music too. Ives is having fun here. But until you’ve listened to it a few times – and I mean listen properly, not simply have it on in the background – you’re never going to appreciate it, let alone actually enjoy it.
Language is not simply about communication. It’s about the quality of the communication. You could say:
To be or not to be – that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.
or you could say:
Live or die – pick one!
Think about it:
life’s shite – you can get on with it
or you can lie down to it.
They both have something going for them. If anything the quote from Shakespeare has been parodied and lampooned so often it’s really lost its power but that’s not always the case. Quotations can provide common ground or they can provide an alternative perspective. If we don’t know them we can’t use them.
I can quote the first five lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy off the top of my head. After that I get a bit hazy. We never did Hamlet at school. I’ve learned it off the telly. I only saw the play live for the first time about fifteen years ago but I’ve never found a use for those lines until today. But just because I don’t quote Shakespeare doesn’t mean I don’t quote anyone. I use quotes all the time in my articles some of which I can actually remember but invariably check anyway to make sure I’m not misquoting, for example, “Kiss me, Hardy” rather than “Kismet, Hardy” – actually neither’s accurate, "Thank God I have done my duty" is the best contender for Nelson’s last words.
This is where I have my doubts about the long-term benefits of memorising things. The ability to accurately recollect fades unless it’s constantly reinforced.
Part of the argument behind memorisation is that it’s not the exact words that’s important but the underlying principles. For years I could recite those lines from Hamlet but I never thought for a second what they actually meant. Seriously! I was an adult before I actually wondered what he was going on about. They were just words before that. Like ‘Ring a Ring o' Roses’. Again, I was a grown-up before I discovered the background to the nursery rhyme.
My wife remembers learning the Gettysburg Address at school and just rattled the start of it off for me parrot-fashioned. And maybe it was explained to her or maybe not. Hopefully it was but if not then what’s the point? I’ve memorised E = mc2. It doesn’t take much memorisation but that’s not the point. I even know what it means: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. But I don’t understand it.
Apparently T S Eliot said you don’t need to understand poetry to enjoy it. I guess that’s true up to a point. Daisy Goodwin certainly believes that:
A seven-year-old might miss every nuance of ‘Kubla Khan’ or ‘Ozymandias’ — but, learnt young, the poems will stay in the head for life, adding lustre to the good moments and illumination in the bad. Memorising a poem means you own it. ... It is time to rebrand poetry as an achievement, not a soppy indulgence. 
To this end her production company Silver River, along with the BBC, has launched a poetry recital competition open to every child in the country between the ages of seven and eleven.
The age is noteworthy. In her reminiscence about learning poetry in the 1950s, Catherine Porteous had this to say:
What, of course, one does not realise at an early age is that the ability to learn decreases with advancing years. I have enjoyed much of the poetry of the 20th century, from Eliot and C.S. Lewis to Betjeman and Ted Hughes, but no amount of effort enables me to retain it, and I have to return to the written word. Now, as I repeat those long-ago-learnt verses to myself at moments of anxiety or stress, sorrow or elation, or just to alleviate the plain ordinary boredom of traffic jams and bus queues, I am more than grateful to those who enabled me to acquire such a rich store, which will last me as long as my memory does.
There is a possibility that trends will be changing. There’s a General Election looming and all the parties are out there dusting down their stalls. A Conservative government says they would immediately overhaul the national curriculum in English, maths and science and hand control of A-level content to universities and academic experts to end "political control" of exams, according to the shadow education secretary, Michael Gove. They’re also planning lessons on a Saturday to help poorer children catch up with their middle-class peers and they intend that children will learn poetry by heart and to recite the kings and queens of England as part of a return to ‘traditional’ education.
Mr Gove told The Times: “Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.”
I’m not sure I entirely agree with him. A part of me does, the part that thinks, Well it didn’t do me any harm, but the more rational part wonders if I could’ve perhaps learned more and better some other way. Not everyone thinks that a return to old-fashioned teaching methods is the way to go. In an article in The Independent Hilary Wilce had this to say:
The problem is that there is so much learning that children need to master in the modern world. Moreover, children – and teachers – of the internet age tend to see little point in learning things by rote when those same things are just a mouse click away. Also, I can't think of anything more gruesome, as a child, than being made to cram a government-approved poem into my brain by a teacher without a spark of poetry in their soul, who has been instructed to do so by the national curriculum.
I worry about the expression ‘government-approved’ (it suggests the government has some hidden agenda) because all the poetry I got at school could have that label slapped on it and I was very grateful for that education; I don’t feel the slightest bit indoctrinated but what’s more worrying is the fact that clearly many teachers have problems whipping up enthusiasm for a subject they themselves find no real pleasure in. But I’m sure there are plenty of biology and physics teachers who have lost their former love for their subjects too.
Recently, Nick Seddon, a grown man if his photo is anything to go by, took up the challenge of learning 100 poems by heart. Like me he managed to get through school without memorising a single poem. It was a challenge for him. He had no higher motive than succeeding and probably approached it with the same mindset he would have had if he’d been challenged to see how many ferrets he could fit down his trousers. (Yes, people do that for real.) By the halfway point his perspective had been significantly altered:
It's been all about falling in love with poetry again, and discovering it as if for the first time.
Right from the start I have found that memorizing revives things that have become stale or deadened. Donne is a case in point. Some years ago I murdered him with an M.Phil and left him crammed into his own "pretty roomes"; but as soon as I learned ‘The Good Morrow’ he came alive again, back with all his old swagger and charm.
What's more, I am beginning to make sense of poems that I've always found tricky. The tightness and compactness of Shakespeare sonnets, for instance, dictates that, unless you are one of those freaks of nature who can soak this stuff up effortlessly, they take a depressingly long time to learn. But once you have them by heart - which is of course by head - the poems stay with you, resonating in what Seamus Heaney calls the echo chambers of the mind. They unfurl and display their self-delighting inventiveness: time and again, walking down the street, I have little insights and epiphanies.
I think the difference here is that Sneddon moved from learning poems by rote to learning “by heart” an expression much preferred by Andrew Motion who, ten years ago, argued that poetry should become more a part of our children’s lives:
I have very dismal memories of dusty classrooms, being made to slog through things, but that is of course absolutely not what I'm wanting to return to.
I'm wanting to argue for a place to be retained for learning poems by heart - a phrase which I much prefer to 'learning by rote' because it quite rightly emphasises how precious and inward the business of learning can be.
It would clearly be ridiculous for me or anyone else to suggest that we go back to the bad old ways of poor children being stood over by teachers.
So the Tories are proposing nothing new.
The idea of memorising goes back thousands of years. The first instance of it I can remember was, predictably enough, in the Bible. When a new king took the throne in Israel one of the first things he was required to do was “to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites” and he was to “meditate on it day and night, so that [he] may be careful to do everything written in it.” In the original it doesn’t say “meditate”, it’s “read in an undertone” or in effect read quietly to yourself. Not only does reading aloud slow you down it also brings into play another sense, hearing; you’re not simply seeing the words, you’re hearing them too.
I’m not a big fan of memorisation I have to say. I am a big fan of thinking about poetry, taking time on it. I was looking through my poems a couple of nights ago, making lists for a forthcoming collection, and I found myself skipping over poems that I remember being very pleased with at the time I wrote them. When I wrote those poems I only had to contend with one; it had my full and undivided attention but when you’re faced with several hundred it’s easy to skip over what are actually quite decent poems, poems that need to be thought about to be fully appreciated. I don’t think any of them need to be committed to memory, not word for word, but the gist of the poem should stay with you: the point the poem is making is more important than the poem itself.
Here’s a good candidate:
The title of the poem says it all. This is a poem that needs to be reflected on. It would be dead easy to memorise and to be very honest when I said I couldn’t recite any of my own poems I had forgotten about this one. That said, I couldn’t remember its title.
Finally, aesthetics aside, are there any benefits to memorising poetry other than being able to recall huge chunks of it and show off at parties?
One should be sceptical, though, of some of the alleged advantages cited by champions of poetry memorisation. “I wonder if anyone who has memorised a lot of poetry . . . can fail to write coherent sentences and paragraphs,” Robert Pinsky once said. Well, responded David Bromwich, just take a look at the autobiography of Marlon Brando, who memorised heaps of Shakespeare.
Are there cognitive benefits? I sometimes feel that my mnemonic horsepower is increasing, but that’s probably an illusion. “Memorising poetry does seem to make people a bit better at memorising poetry,” Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, “but there’s no evidence that the skill carries over to other tasks.”
I’ve not read Brando’s autobiography but I assume he’s saying it’s not a work of great literature. As for making you popular at parties, I knew this woman once who was heavily into the Romantics and would spontaneously declaim chunks of Byron or Shelley and do you know what? Everyone, including me, thought she was a pain, a show off. I did not want to pounce on her and beg her to have my babies. Besides my wife would have been annoyed at me had I done that. I seem to recall she also had a fondness for bursting into song from time to time too; she had the figure of an opera singer if not the voice.
I think the bottom line for me is the difference between learning and memorising. Regurgitating facts is one thing but understanding them is something else. There were lots of things I needed to remember at school and I remembered them for as long as I needed to know them and then promptly forgot 99% of them. The odd thing stuck. I remember what the coefficient of friction is – I used the formula (which I have since forgotten) long enough to pass my Applied Mechanics O-Level – but I’ve never used it since.
If memory is a muscle as some say then mine has gone flabby. Now. I didn’t always have one. I learned quickly at school and got good grades but I never really put any effort into remembering. I just did it. Clearly long enough to pass exams but that’s about it. There is a reason for this. Memory is a process, not a thing. Comparing memory to a muscle is apparently inaccurate. You use muscles to play snooker but it’s technique that dictates how good you are:
One classic study discovered that 3 hours of practice memorising did not improve long-term memory, but 3 hours of practice using memory techniques did improve long-term memory.
There are many memory books out there that claim memory is a muscle and should be exercised. There is no research that supports this.
Research suggests that no one ever forgets anything. Everything we experience is buried deep in our minds. The problem is that we cannot get the information out when we need it.
Memory skills give you the "hook" that lets you get the information out when you need it. 
So if someone was to phone up right now with one of those surveys and ask me where I stood on compulsory memorisation of poetry at school I’m not actually sure where I would stand. I think in general I’d be in favour of it for no other reason that it does no harm. There can also be side benefits:
At independent schools, such as Eton, ... children are introduced to poetry not only because of the importance of inducting them into our British cultural heritage but also because the recitation of poetry in class is a good opportunity to raise their self-confidence and to acquire a skill - public speaking - which gives them a great advantage when it comes to projecting themselves at university and job interviews.
According to Gove the Tories would draw on children’s writers Michael Morpurgo and Anthony Horowitz for advise on what books pupils should be reading and what poetry should be included in the curriculum would be suggested by Andrew Motion (why not Carol Ann Duffy?) but that doesn’t exactly have me jumping for joy. Hopefully they’re just the poster boys to stand alongside Carol Vorderman and Simon Schama.
So where do you stand?
 Katherine Faulkner, 'Children will learn poetry and monarchs of England by heart under Tory plans', Daily Mail, 6th March 2010
 Hilary Wilce, 'Education Quandary: Is there any real value in learning poetry by heart? Are the Conservatives right to want to bring it back to schools?', The Independent, 18th March 2010
 Pupils urged to learn poetry by heart, BBC News, 9th March 2000