We’ve been exchanging experiences of learning poems by heart, prompted by Alison Flood’s Guardian post on the subject.

Robyn: On the train this morning I was reading an interview with Christopher Ricks, literary critic and current Oxford Professor of Poetry. He said that  ‘after lunch every day when I was an undergraduate, I used to sit for half an hour and memorise things’.  Ricks declares that ‘Everybody ought to be able to speak from memory the whole of “The Voice”…’ by Thomas Hardy (a wonderful poem – if you don’t know it, please look it up), but admits that he himself ‘can’t do the whole of it’ and interestingly relates this to ‘the thing which is contentious in Hardy, the dear awkwardness’. He goes on to say that ‘it’s not true of all the good poets that their lines are easy to memorise’: fluency and rhyme assist memory, but of course predictable rhythm doesn’t mean great poetry – although it doesn’t rule it out, either.

I know I ought to use my train journeys to memorise poems, as good mental exercise and as an insurance against my worst nightmare: being stuck on public transport with nothing to read.

Lilias: Several people have kindly been compiling lists of the poems they think older people will have learned or read at school, which is incredibly helpful – I have Lizzie’s pile of great school poetry readers by the desk to try and find poems that will spark memory in people in carehomes who are beginning to forget other things.

When it comes to memorizing, Burns seems to be the one that all age groups memorized, and still learn via the Burns Federation Recitation Competition.  Though I’ve been trying to memorise ‘Prayer’ – I use it often enough you’d think I would have it engraved on my mind! – and it’s difficult to get the rusty machinery into action but I’m triumphant when I get another line down.  Oh dear – use it or lose it. (Molesworth trying to memorise poems is pretty much what I sound like..)

I _can_ do you a cheery rendition of Houseman’s ‘Into my heart an air that kills’. I think.”

Peggy: I have almost all of Robert Service’s ‘Cremation of Sam Magee’, (but am still put to shame by my 83 year old grandmother, who has it, and others, all by memory), can reel off bits of Edward Lear and still suffer flashbacks of G.K. Chesterton’s ‘The Donkey‘ (force-learned at primary school for recitation in front of our headmaster, age 7), but not much more.

Which ones would you recommend Lilias read with the folk she visits in care homes? What poems do have by heart? And which ones do you intend to learn?