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The old masters – Poetry by Heart

I recently watched Andrew Graham Dixon’s enthralling new programme on the BBC, ‘High Art of the Low Countries’. His analysis of Breughel’s Landscape with the fall of Icarus was masterful, and as I watched, and listened, I became aware of Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, reassembling in my memory, even before part of it was read aloud.

I never learned that poem by heart when at school but I must have been sufficiently engaged by it to have made some effort to hold onto various lines. Perhaps those lines do much of the work themselves, such is their poise, the strength of their images, and the sense of wisdom being gained as the poem runs its course: a mere twenty-one lines, and yet so much discovered.

Auden’s poem, like Breughel’s painting, captures the astonishing variance in scale of human experience. There is the big news and the small, and yet either one may loom larger than the other, according to personal perspective. In encountering great poetry, our own tangents of experience may be slight, but they’re enough to convince us that the poem knows more and will divulge its bigger news to us if we only give it time.

Learning ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’

‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ is one of the poems included in the anthology compiled for Poetry by Heart, the recitation competition for students in schools. Supporting the project, I was responsible for organizing a number of workshops for teachers, exploring the fundamental relationship between poetry and memory. Poets running workshops “take no prisoners”, and so it was that Peter Sansom challenged me – along with the teachers – to learn a poem in next to no time at all. Perhaps you’ve already guessed that ‘my’ poem was ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. What luck – a head start! I relished this task in the same way that  I had relished learning at least some of the lines all those years earlier, but now of course my perspective had changed and many new thoughts crowded in, complicating my ‘advantage’. Having held some phrases in my head for so long, I was struck afresh by the visible structure of the poem on the page, the masterful use of line breaks in directing meaning. My better awareness of poetic technique helped me find new ways of remembering the movements from one phrase to another. And there, right in the middle of the poem, was that telling line about the old masters themselves:

“They never forgot”

It connects to the earlier “how well they understood”, demonstrating the explicit link between memory and understanding that poetry affords. Memorizing a poem is not just a virtuoso irrelevance: it’s a fundamental part of learning about poetry and learning through poetry, enabling its echoes to resonate increasingly with our ongoing lives.

There’ll come a time, hopefully, when I’ll visit Brussels, see Breughel’s painting in the flesh, as it were, and let further layers of cultural experience deepen my grasp of the poem. It’s an endless adventure.

Remembering ‘The Generation Game’

Preparing a seminar for teachers myself, I decided to use a particular poem of my own, ‘The Generation Game’, which takes its title from the old television quiz show. I went to my bookshelves and failed to find it. After a momentary panic, I realized that I could remember the whole thing: the structure was intact and the conveyor belt of images still passed by my eyes. The poem ends with the line “Whatever you remember can be yours,” and that simple idea came home to me with a new force.

I listened to the finalists in the Poetry by Heart competition last weekend, reciting poems with seemingly effortless ease. Of course a huge amount of work had gone into the process, but since memorability is the very DNA of poetry, committing poems to heart is a pretty natural thing to do. What the young people demonstrated, beyond any doubt, was the pleasure they had taken in learning their chosen poems, and the way those poems had nourished their thinking in a way that would never be diminished: on the contrary, the rich complexities of the poems were now part of their own DNA, and would help them in their further reading of the world and its endless new resonance.

Anyone who learns a full poem early in their life is brilliantly ahead of the game, with the real rewards still to come.