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Bigger and stronger hearts: poetry and memory

Bigger and stronger hearts: poetry and memory

Oxford University Press is partnered with The Poetry Archive to support Poetry by Heart, a new national poetry competition in England which will see thousands of students aged 14 to 18 competing to become national champion for their skill in memorising and reciting poems by heart. OUP will provide free content from OED Online, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and the American National Biography Online to support students participating in the competition. Here, we speak to Sir Andrew Motion, UK poet laureate 1999-2009 and co-founder and co-director of the Poetry Archive, about the benefits of learning poetry.

When we launched Poetry By Heart, the national poetry recitation competition for young people in January, we hoped it would offer excitement and a challenge. The 130 poems in the competition anthology invite students and their teachers to explore a very wide range of poetry from the anonymous fourteenth-century poet’s ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ to Jacob Sam-la Rose’s ‘A Life in Dreams’.

In setting up the competition I hoped that students would experience something of what Samuel Johnson described in his reflections upon the value of literature – the capacity to “enjoy and endure” existence. These words are at the heart of the competition and the process which prepares students for competing. We want young people to feel that that they are engaged in serious fun as they encounter the words of some familiar and many unfamiliar poets in the anthology.

As we head towards the national finals in April at the National Portrait Gallery, it is wonderfully clear that some thousands of students and hundreds of teachers have embraced the excitement and the dare represented by participation in the project. Running alongside the competition we have organised ten workshops for teachers in all the regions of the country where poets and educators have come together to discuss the different ways in which we can explore poetry with young people.

Learning-by-rote vs. learning-by-heart

Asking students to commit poetry to memory of course has a chequered past. Catherine Robson’s scholarly book on the history of recitation, Heart Beats – Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem deals fascinatingly with how a once mandatory exercise within education systems in the UK and America fell from favour. Pedagogical theories in the second half of the twentieth century encouraged different approaches within the literature lesson, and memorising poetry became associated with simple learning by rote.

I would, of course, draw an important distinction between learning by rote (which suggests something rather dusty, dutiful and deliberate) and learning by heart, which is a way of taking a poem in to ourselves; into the most feeling part of our beings where our internal resources can get to work on a poem.

Alice Oswald’s ‘Wedding’

Last year, I read one of Alice Oswald’s poems, ‘Wedding’, at an event in London. Taking this beautiful sonnet into the memory and into the heart seems to me to illustrate how poetry belongs in life; how it is not a bolt-on or an optional extra, but it is like breathing.

Oswald’s poem begins with a line of iambic pentameter which has echoes of many conventional lines of poetry which seek to describe and define love. In this case, “From time to time our love is like a sail”, but there is no attempt to extend that particular simile. Instead, the poem offers comparison after comparison and transformation after transformation. The sail becomes a swallowtail, a coat, a mouth, a tear, and a trumpeter. The poet is taking hold of a familiar experience, shining it up and passing it back to us as something deeper and refreshed. As it lives in our memory and resonates with our inner feelings, we can share in the sense of wonder and rapture the poet conveys in the final line of the poem.

As we hold poems in ourselves we are aware of living in a context, in a tradition of a kind that Eliot meant to summon up in his great essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, where he spoke about the historical sense (which is a sense of the timeless) as well as the temporal, and of the timeless and the temporal together.

The benefits of learning poetry

In our work with teachers in our regional workshops, participants have made it clear that the mind is the repository of innumerable chunks of patterned language. Teachers of all ages have shared fragments of speeches, advertising jingles, song lyrics, jokes, mnemonic aids, proverbs, verses from religious texts, and, most significantly, poems or passages from poems. We appear, as humans, to have a primitive appetite for this commitment of words to memory in ways that may be effortless or full of conscious endeavour. It makes us feel good. It helps us find ourselves.

We hope that students who visit will, in addition to developing their communication skills, gain much confidence and pleasure and a very real sense of achievement as they take part in the competition. As they share the works they now know by heart, I hope their audiences will experience the outward and audible manifestation of an inwardly understood and enjoyed poem. We hope they will find that learning by heart, in the words of Simon Armitage, “…makes our hearts bigger and stronger.”

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