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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Learning poetry by heart


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[1]

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, William Wallace 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 ‘Antiquity’ just means ‘old fashioned’ which means ‘out of date’.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.”[2]

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 Ives-Charles-06 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. Andgett 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. [3]

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.[4]

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 michael-govepoetry 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.”[5]

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.[6]

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.

nick_seddon 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.[7]

Andrew Motion 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.[8]

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”[9] and he was to “meditate on it day and night, so that [he] may be careful to do everything written in it.”[10] 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:


we are not ready

go skinny dipping

one another's souls.

29 August 1989

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.”[11]

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) Coeff of frictionlong 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. [12]

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.[13]

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?


[1] Boris Johnson, ‘Here's a really Right-wing idea: learn poetry’, The Telegraph, 17th March 2009

[2] Michael Knox Beran, ‘In Defense of Memorization’, City Journal, Summer 2004

[3] Daisy Goodwin, ‘A poem learnt by heart is a friend for life’, The Times, 5th October 2008

[4] Catherine Porteus, Learning poetry by Heart, Pass on a Poem

[5] Katherine Faulkner, 'Children will learn poetry and monarchs of England by heart under Tory plans', Daily Mail, 6th March 2010

[6] 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

[7] Nick Sneddon, ‘Taking poetry to heart’, The Guardian, 30th November 2006

[8] Pupils urged to learn poetry by heart, BBC News, 9th March 2000

[9] Deuteronomy 17:18, New International version

[10] Joshua 1:8, New International version

[11] Jim Holt, ‘Got Poetry?’, The New York Times, 2nd April 2009

[12] Top 10 Memory Myths,

[13] A comment on Boris Johnson’s article in The Telegraph on 17th March 2009, ‘Here's a really Right-wing idea: learn poetry’


Elisabeth said...

A wonderful post here, Jim . I'm surprised you did not learn much poetry by heart a a child. You strike me as one who memorises.

My beloved Gerald Murnane rote learns whole speeches sometimes if he's anxious about presenting, even now and he's turning seventy.

I spent my childhood rote learning and well into my early university years, which proved disastrous.

I am sad that I relied so much on rote learning because it interfered with my capacity to think and to understand. It is as if it reduced my confidence in my own capacity to put things into words and instead I relied on other people's ways of saying things. Other people's words seemed better.

Nevertheless, one good side effect of this is that I can recite heaps and heaps of poetry and sections from Shakespeare like a machine. I'm grateful for this.

Tess Kincaid said...

I was one of those nutty kids who didn't have to be coaxed into memorizing poetry. It came naturally. I loved (and still do) the meter and the feel of the textures of the words in my mouth.

Jim Murdoch said...

There’s memorise, Lis, and there’s remember. I’ve always tended to learn by osmosis; I just remembered. My dad was into self-improvement and went through a phase of buying books like How to Get a Super-powered Memory and The Trachtenberg System of Speed Mathematics. When he’d finished the memory course he could tell you the name of every book in the Bible, who wrote it, where they wrote it, when they wrote it and what time period it covered.

I still have his old Bible and at the top of each book he has a phrase like “Genevieve likes to drink tea always with Moses in the wilderness at 5:15 and at shilling a cup,” which apparently helped him remember that the book of Genesis was written by Moses in the wilderness in 1513 BC and covered the period 4026 – 1657 BC. The one for John is quite good: “John, who was nettled, rammed the city of Ephesus with his puffer after a prolonged nip of moonshine.” Or Hebrews: “The Hebrew lover Paul when acting at Rome chose tomahawks.”

I’ve never felt the need to memorise stuff because I’ve always had the source material close to hand. I’m pottering around with an article at the moment about “the modern mind” and the basis of it is that we now use machines (phones, computers) to artificially extend our minds. I don’t need to remember poems because I can google them and have a copy that I can cut and paste straight into a post. I simply need a tag, something memorable to type into the search window and I usually get it first time.

I don’t think I would appreciate being able to repeat something parrot-fashioned with the possible exception of the times tables but again when seriously was the last time I did a calculation in my head more complicated than adding a couple of numbers together?

I never memorised speeches when I had to deliver them but I did rehearse them into the ground and they were timed again and again. My scripts were always colour-coded too, dramatic pauses, emphases, that kind of thing.

And all I have to say to you, Willow, is that if you enjoyed it then there’s nothing wrong with it. I’ve always enjoyed being able to rattle off facts and figures – when such-and-such a single entered the charts and how many weeks at No. 1, that kind of thing – but I’ve never sat dawn and deliberately tried to memorise them; I’ve just remembered. That is until recently and my memory gave up the ghost on me. That was scary. I probably should practice remembering but I’m a bit lazy that way. I have too many other things I want to do that interest me more and, as I was just telling Elisabeth, really all I have to do these days is remember something and the rest is easily locatable.

Ann Elle Altman said...

I have been doing posts lately on Shakespeare's Sonnets and sad to say, I haven't memorized anything. I would like to though. Perhaps I will make it a goal to memorize 100 poems... maybe.


Anonymous said...

So, I didn't read the whole post, but just from first glance I could tell you are a writer. After scanning back up, my suspicions were confirmed. Yup, a writer.

Ok, so what I did read of your post, I enjoyed. I don't love or hate poetry, but I appreciate and it and most of the time I understand it. Memorizing is helpful to a point, but like you said, do you understand what it is you are memorizing?

On a side note, good luck on your novel.

Kass said...

Enjoyed reading this very much. It's interesting how a teacher in our life can influence us forever. If the person asking me to memorize Shakespeare had been a nasty old bitty, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed reciting anything like I do.

I have memorized the lines of plays I've been in and operas in languages I really didn't know. The challenge has been to make it a part of me in a way that connects to an audience. All of our words are someone else's. How we remember, assemble, rearrange and use them is a choice.

My mom at 96, can still recite, "...tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day..." And she does it with great meaning and understanding, especially as she creeps towards her dusty death. Her eyes light up when she says, "...signifying nothing." - And yet she can't remember if she's had lunch yet.

Why aren't the last words we remember of Nelson, "fan, fan...rub, rub...drink, drink.."...? Now there's a poem.

Art Durkee said...

I've performed a lot of Ives, over the years, as well as just listened to and studied the scores. I don't we've caught to his ideas, just yet.

In 5th grade, we all had to memorize and perform a poem for the rest of the class. I picked "Macavity, the Mystery Cat," from Old Possum, and I did memorize it too. I think memorizing a poem or two in school is not a bad idea, as long as it remains a way to get kids to like poetry, rather than be turned into another testing level, which is just another way to get kids to hate poetry. Rote learning isn't always inspiring—it depends how it's done, and a lot depends on the teacher's attitude.

I've got a number of poems still memorized, simply from reading and re-reading them. Certain lines that have meaning to your life stick in your mind. Certain poems, too. And certain characteristic tones and styles also stick in memory, even if the poems don't—maybe that's what we call an influence. In which case, I have no problem saying the Jean Valentine and George Mackay Brown have long since taken up permanent residence in my memory.

I always prefer to perform from memory, whether it's music or whatever. It allows you have more contact with the audience, gets you "out of book" more, and really opens up those connections.

The whole point of Marshall McLuhan's ideas was that the electronic media are direct extensions of our nervous systems, and therefore our minds. He was even more right than he knew.

We all use a lot of machine-memory to substitute for memorization. Which is fine. The very deep questions asked by a post-cyberpunk TV series like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is: At what point do we become something other than human? If we could edit our memories, and/or store them externally, are we not thereby editing ourselves? Does not personal memory form the basis of personal identity, of the self? Memory is more than just data—but how much more?

My mother had severe Alzheimer's, yet until the very week she died she could play piano. Early memorized skills never left her. She couldn't remember my name, although she knew I was someone she knew, but she could still play Chopin on the nursing home piano, and still sight-read Xmas carols for their annual Xmas party. When she died, she had been playing piano for a total of 80 years.

Rachel Cotterill said...

I think understanding and contemplating is more important than memorising.

I seem to recall that I had to memorise a poem at school, once, but I don't remember which one and I certainly couldn't do it now!

Paul said...

I'm an old fogey on this one, Jim. I agree with all the arguments in your post for making children memorise a couple of poems in school. It is a way of learning the rhythm and sound of the language which can't be done without recital out loud. It is also a way of reinforcing the importance of poetry. And it is a way of carrying poems around in your head. I can run through some of my favourites on a bus and so on. Memorising your own poetry is really good for readings too, much better than mumbling into a book. The effort made to memorise the poems reveals much in them that isn't revealed otherwise, I think.

Marion McCready said...

I'm intrigued by your dad's phrases - trying to work out Paul and the tomahawks!!

I'm afraid I'm against the drudgery of rote learning for poems and history etc I think children have a natural affinity to poetry if it's presented to them in the right way. My 9 year-old niece can recite The Gruffalo (kids story written in rhyming couplets) - according to wiki its about 700 words long so that's pretty good I think, but more importantly she loves it, it excites her imagination.

Jim Murdoch said...

I reviewed a novel about the writing of the sonnets a while ago, Ann. Called, predictably enough, The Sonnets, I actually found they made a bit more sense to me afterwards. I’m still never going to rush to memorise even one of them but you might think to see if the book’s of interest. Here’s a link to the article.

Thanks for that Suzanneme. Yes, I know, I can be a bit long-winded but my heart’s in the right place. I don’t actually think we should automatically assume that memorisation is a bad thing. I think as a supplement to study it’s probably a good thing when you do it for the love of the piece and not because you’re going to be tested on it.

Ah, Kass, yes, I know exactly what you mean. I wonder if the old retreat into childhood memories for comfort in a world that’s become increasing confusing and alien. I’ve only been in a play once at school, a dramatisation of ’The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens’. I was one of the three Scots lords but I’m not even sure I had a speaking part. I was probably eight at the time.

One of my fondest memories, Art, was watching a documentary on Ives with my mum where they actually had two bands march though a crossroads in opposite directions. My mum called him “Charlie Ives”; I have no idea why. My mum wasn’t the slightest bit interested in classical music but I think she got the fact that he was having fun. I don’t think she’d ever equated classical music with fun before.

I see we agree on why children should be asked to memorise poetry as a way to get them to appreciate it. I can actually remember a good bit of ‘Macavity, The Mystery Cat’ although I can’t even say I’ve read it that many times. I just has such an infectious beat to it.

I’ve watched very little Japanese animation (although I did catch Howl's Moving Castle on TV last weekend). There’s so much choice and I’m not crazy on paying for stuff I’m not sure I’m going to like. It puzzles me that more of it hasn’t made its way onto at least some of the satellite channels like Syfy.

Rachel C, yes, I’d like to have been taught to contemplate at school:

      “What’ve you got next period, Jim?”
       “Double Contemplation.”
       “Christ! Rather you than me.”

Paul, as you probably know I’ve never read publicly and reading ‘Lonely City’ into a microphone is about the closest I expect to get to it for a while. I have no doubt that I had to read poems aloud at school and, and I know this sounds a bit double-standardy, but I think kids should be made to hear and read poems aloud so they know how it could/should be done. How else will they be able to tell if they’re doing it right?

I don’t feel I’m missing out not having a head full of other people’s poetry. I have protopoetry running though my head constantly.

And, finally, Sorlil. I don’t have the memory box anymore. I wasn’t a book as such but a box with a collection of booklets to be worked through, a memory improvement course. If you click on this link and scroll down to ‘Peg Words’ you’ll see where the ‘tea, Noah, Ma, ray’ comes from but I’m not sure what ‘tomahawk’ represents.

As far as a child remembering a 700-words story goes just think about all those parents who have to read the same story over and over again and whose kids correct them if they get something wrong. It does seem that they have a fondness for repetition. Having a new wee one you might find the articles The Age of Repetition and Repetition of interest.

Dick said...

A great post, Jim.

Just when it seemed that a fag paper couldn't be slipped between the policies of the two main parties, the Tories come up with their proposals for the overhauling of the English syllabus. Boris' opening statement strikes a chill into the heart: 2010 - the Year of the Great Leap Backwards.

But I guess there'd be little point in drawing the attention of the Blonde Bombshell to the fact that those very working class kids for whom the benefits of Saturday school would be organised are capable of recalling hip hop lyrics of narrative complexity and jaw-mangling oral dexterity. Much of it is crap; much of it is compelling poetry. The crucial point is that, in performance, all of it is delivered as learned language.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t usually take much interest in politics but it’s a bit hard to avoid it at the moment, Dick. You make a good point about the kids and their song lyrics though. I was interested in Michael Caine’s wee speech too. He says he still shudders at the thought of his National Service. I wonder if, in fifty years time, there’ll be some old actor standing on a stage with the ‘New Conservative’ leader talking about how he shudders whenever he hears the expression National Citizen’s Service. It’s not compulsory now but who knows what will happen in time.

Dave King said...

I am one who did learn a lot of poetry while at school. I say "while at school" because I cannot recall if I had been required to learn it or did so off my own bat. I think I may have been one of your freaks! I can still reel off a dozen or more long poems (bar the odd verse here an d there!). Since I've been writing poetry (seriously, not until late in life) I have learnt far more and more large chunks from long poems, but what I have found is that if I
give no attention to one of these later poems for a period of time, it goes - though not completely, for it is easily refreshed. One benefit I have found is sleeping! If I can't nod off for some reason , silently going through a poem does the trick. A thoroughly interesting post.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's interesting, Dave. When I'm trying not to think so I can get to sleep I usually list off classical composers alphabetically. I pick a letter at random and just start:


    Bach, C.P.E.

    Bach, Johann Sebastian





Kass said...

When you're tired and you can't sleep,
you count composers instead of sheep,
And I lie awake counting conumdrums.

...there's a song that goes something like that.

Conda Douglas said...

Personally, a big part of my interest in writing started when, as a child, I memorized a couple of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I loved how the poems rested in my mind.

Here's one (and her most famous poem):
First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.

Jim Murdoch said...

Needless to say I've never heard of her, Conda but I found the title interesting. I can see it comes from the title of the collection A Few Figs from Thistles but I wonder why there's only a first and second fig and no more.

Richard Epstein said...

"the point the poem is making is more important than the poem itself."

I couldn't disagree more. A poem is not a set of assembly instructions from Ikea, where all that matters is whether or not the bookshelf collapses. The "poem itself" is the point of the poem; some prose précis or distillation of a moral is not. When you have taken in "Suicide is the preeminent question," you have not gotten what really matters about the soliloquy you quote.

Conda Douglas said...

I think part of the reason I adored her so much, Jim, was that I had a book of her poems "for children." Yeah, right--nowadays most of those poems would be banned from kids--several were about death, including one written about a crematory ash on a mission of vengeance!

Jim Murdoch said...

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, RHE; I’m stating mine, not looking for converts. I’m happy for you to disagree. There are plenty of works of art out there that people appreciate without getting to know what was in the artist’s mind when he started work or what he was trying to convey. Plenty of people enjoyed the Mona Lisa for her smile before Dan Browne made us look for the hidden meaning in everything Da Vinci did. Poetry likewise can be appreciated simple for the beauty of the words. I appreciate beautiful words but I like those words to have meaning too.

I was being facetious when I rewrote Shakespeare but I think you’ve underlined my point. There are layers of meaning in those few lines let alone the rest of the speech. They are more than the sum of their parts. A poem is not a Billy bookcase. It’s more like a Lego castle that you can take to pieces and modify or turn into a ray gun if the mood takes you. But you need to make something of it, make it mean something. Other than that all it is is either an assortment of words or a pile of bricks.

In the context of the paragraph though what I am talking about is what my poems mean to me; they are a by-product of a thought process and pretty much useless to me other than as a memento of something I’ve figured out and moved on from. I’m writing the introduction to that collection at the moment and I ask why I’m bothering to publish poems when I’m done with them. My answer is that it’s green. Other people may find something in my thoughts so let them. But seriously, I’m done with them; they’ve served their purpose. I wrote ‘Reflections’ about my relationship with a woman I’ve not spoken to in about thirteen years. It’s effectively a diary entry. No one will extract from that poem what it means to me because you’re only getting to see the tip of the iceberg; the rest of the poem is still inside me.

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting, Conda. I've just written a review of a children's book where I raise that very question, what's appropriate subject matter for books for kids. It'll be a wee while before it gets posted but I'll be keen to hear the feedback.

Ari-free said...

"...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 problem is with today's approach, the student gets the point of the poem, moves on to something else and the point is quickly forgotten. The poem needs to be a part of him in order for the point to be a part of him.

Anonymous said...

Your report on Nick Seddon's adventure seems like a promising approach, though I make no promises here to do anything like that.

I notice that I have to like something enough to learn it by frequent recourse to it. Memorization then becomes like polishing it off.

Also, I do my best memorizing walking riding my bike when I don't have the thing to be memorized with me. I guess that makes little sense.

Anyway, I like the way I got to meander through this topic with you here. Your writing is as inviting as woods.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that's a key point, Peter. If you're already connected to a piece of writing going that one step further an memorising it isn't such a big deal. I would be interested to know, of all the poems people have memorised worldwide how many don't rhyme. My guess would be not so many.

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