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Learn a poem by heart today

2012 June 15
by Paul Vallely

It is easy to mock the proposal by the Education Secretary Michael Gove that children as young as five should memorise and recite poetry as part of his overhaul of English schools’ primary curriculum. He is harking back, critics suggest, to some Victorian idyll which saw rote-learning as a disciplinary and character-building exercise in the mental gymnasium of Empire. Since then, the utilitarian argument goes, British children have slipped behind the rest of the world. We need to get back to the old ways.

These, one parodist suggested, had produced a nation whose elderly mental attics are littered with poetical lumber along the lines: I wandered lonely as a cloud, that tum-ti-tum o’er vale and hill, when all at once I saw a crowd, a something something daffodils. Education, they counter, should not be about parroted memory but learning skills to analyse literature and life. The uniformity of rhythmic chanting, by contrast, breeds dull conformity rather than encouragement to think. Others offered limericks beginning There was a young Tory called Gove

It is a pretty rum idea that poetry can become utilitarian. Poetry, with its heightened language and its artifice of rhythm and rhyme, is the antithesis of utility. It has its uses, of course, as poets since the time of Homer understood. It was bards who transmuted the business of transmitting history from mere record-keeping into an oral tradition of art. It was poetry that turned time immemorial into time memorial by discovering that heightened language, driven by rhyme and rhythm, made things easier to remember. Times tables are a low-grade mathematical equivalent.

But poetry, enfolded in the heart, does much more. Learning by heart is not the same as learning by rote. A former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes explains the difference in the introduction to his recently re-issued 1997 anthology By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember. Our memories work at many levels – linguistic, cinematic and musical. Mechanical repetition is just one way of retaining material. Hughes shows how it is but the springboard for more creative modes.

When memorization gives way to performance, something organic starts to happen. It becomes a part of us, in the way that a sonata does when a pianist can set the music aside and play from the memory of fingers and mind combined; then the musician somehow channels the composer’s emotions and adds to them his own. It is what in prayer the rosary, at its best, can achieve.

And it expands beyond itself. Patterns of words teach us the shapes of meaning. Internalised they make that understanding intrinsic. They teach that the sound of a word and its meaning are not separate things. Memory exercises the muscle of language, but it also creates an anchor for other reading or art. It installs, Hughes says, a guardian angel behind the tongue. It becomes a reef around which the life of language builds and breeds.

That is why speaking his own poem aloud was an important part of Hughes’s compositional process. But it reaches out as well as in. I don’t know if it is historically true but there is a deep poetic truth about the scene in Sylvia, the 2003 film about the self-consuming romance between Hughes and the American poet Sylvia Plath, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, in which he falls for her at their first meeting in part because she can quote his own poem back to him.

Poetry as a wooing weapon may feed only the narcissistic ego. But a poem in the heart send its roots deeper into the sacred subsoil of our psyche. It sensitises the mind to intuitions which speed in our soul like, to borrow an image from Ted Hughes, the flight of an arrow in the dark.

One Response
  1. Bill Gent permalink
    July 4, 2012

    Thank you for such a well-written and uplifting piece.

    As a researcher, I have spent some years researching the process of hifz – by which Muslims commit the whole of the Arabic Qur’an to memory. Some non-Arabic speakers do this without understanding the literal meaning of the individual words.

    The ‘Western mind’, schooled in the idea that meaning only comes with literal, intellectual understanding, finds this difficult to countenance. The phrase ‘rote learning’ is used to deride such a practice. But what of the many examples of memorisation and recitation in our society (Charles Dickens and many more)? What of the opera-singer who learns a libretto in a barely comprehended language and where the occasion – grandeur, shared appreciation, tradition, stirring music – creates an experience in which literal meaning is dwarfed by other considerations, experiences and emotions?

    Let’s not confuse rote-learning with memorisation and recitation. In a culture in which ‘hare brain’ if valued over ‘tortoise mind’ (to quote the title of a Guy Claxton book), the value of memorisation and recitation is perhaps waiting in the wings ready to be rediscovered.

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