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Keeping it in mind – Poetry By Heart

Keeping it in Mind - Poetry By Heart

Writing West Midlands was delighted to be asked to run a Teachers’ Days as part of the Poetry By Heart competition. As Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands, and as a reader of poetry for many years, I had a particular interest in the process of memorizing poetry and of speaking it from memory. I remember seeing Bertolt Brecht’s son-in-law, Ekkehard Schall, performing Brecht’s poems by heart nearly thirty years ago, and it struck me then how very powerful poetry could be when performed in absolute accord with the text. Of course, Brecht could not help but write poems that demanded to be spoken and heard, so the question hovering off-stage was whether the poems chosen for the Poetry By Heart anthology would be so happily declared.

We recruited the poet, novelist, and theatre director David Calcutt to join me in running the day. David has been writing and reading his poetry for many years, his poetic voice forged by an instinctive understanding of the responsibility undertaken by anyone who asks others to listen to their words in a public arena. In fact, our Teachers’ Day started with a recollection of that glorious first phrase from Beowulf, ‘Hwæt!’, loosely translated as ‘attend’ or ‘listen’ but carrying with it the implication that what follows was worth hearing, and that both speaker and audience needed to be on their mettle. So, having set our flag at the very start of English poetry, we asked our group of teachers and poets to think about their own experiences of remembering any chain of words. The results were surprising…

Poetry figured, certainly. Several of our group had impressive quantities of Shakespeare and other canonical poets by heart. It was not quite a generational distinction, but certainly anyone under the age of thirty was less likely than their elders to have learned poetry by heart. Men of a certain age knew far too many lines from Morrissey’s songs – although we resisted the temptation to discuss where song and poetry intersect – and nursery rhymes and advertising jingles had also lodged in people’s minds.

The point, of course, was just the one Andrew Motion makes in his blog post ‘Bigger and stronger hearts: poetry and memory’, that we have ‘a primitive appetite for this commitment of words to memory in ways that may be effortless or full of conscious endeavour’, and this applies equally be they single pendants, bracelets, necklaces, or industrial chains of sound and sense.

The workshop then moved quickly on to trying to learn a poem, starting with ‘Elegy’ by Chidiock Tichborne (written in 1586). We spent some time looking closely at the text – that close reading that is necessary not just to understand the sense of the poem, but to identify whatever help the poet might be offering for the reader trying to learn it by heart. ‘Elegy’ provides dozens of ‘hand-holds’: the structure (three stanzas), the metre (fairly regular), the rhyme scheme (gloriously regular), the repetition of words and phrases (enough to help), and the narrative sense (a clear set of progressions). The more we looked, the more we found to help with memorization. And to prove our point we set out to learn the poem as a group there and then, each taking a line and using some classic theatre techniques.

By ‘classic theatre techniques’, David meant getting up on our feet and (at least initially) allowing some physicality to help with the cerebral process. Actors know that muscle-memory helps mental-memory, and although there’s no need in a final reading to ‘saw the air’, to echo Hamlet’s wise advice to his actors, movement helps. In fact, within twenty minutes we were able to perform the first two stanzas as an ensemble, using our relative positions in the workshop space as an aid to placing our individual lines accurately. Had we had time we’d have learned the whole poem, and I dare say many of us would have learned each other’s lines. Although this may sound militaristic in its conformity, as poets remind us it is through structure and rules that originality flourishes. And it was fun.

The afternoon was spent working on learning Keith Douglas’s chilling poem ‘How To Kill’, written shortly before his death in WW2. On the surface this looked a far more challenging poem to learn by heart, but again close study revealed patterns, structures, and narrative that both made the poem the work of genius it is and helped lodge it in the back of the head.

There is a lot more to say of what we learned on the day about memorizing and speaking poetry – we’ve not even mentioned speaking – but I’ll finish by offering a quick checklist which we devised, of things to do when faced with the prospect of learning a poem by heart or, more pointedly, asking others to learn a poem by heart:

1. Look at meaning, context, and background

2. Look at shape on the page, patterns of words or sounds

3. Look at rhyme, metre, alliteration, etc.

4. Look at the structure of lines and the poem as a whole

5. Look at concrete and abstract images

6. Look at emotional patterns and the tone of the poem

7. Write out by hand or manipulate on screen

8. Change colour, point size, and spacing of words and lines

9. Create a mood board of the poem

10. Create actions or movements for the poem

11. Create a story board, re-tell the poem

12. Record yourself reading the poem and play back

13. Play movement games with lines of the poem

14. Learn the poem with other people

And finally, I still carry, in the pocket of a jacket I often wear, my now dog-eared photocopy of ‘Elegy’ by Chidiock Tichborne. I suspect this poem, at least, will be with me for the rest of my life.

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