Poetry to learn by heart

June 3, 2010

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?

7 Responses to “Poetry to learn by heart”

  1. Chris Says:

    I know Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ by heart, but it’s an easy one to memorise because of its length and rhyme scheme. I should learn more…I think ‘Landscape with Flying Man’ by John Glenday could be a nice one to know by heart.

  2. C Says:

    I can just about get through ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.
    I think it would be good to learn more to keep the noggin in working order.
    My 84 year old Dad can still recite Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adam– a poem I’ve never come across anywhere else. Sadly I think this experience is why he doesn’t like poetry much!


    • Marsha Howard Says:

      How could I have forgotten “The Owl and the Pussycat,” also learned in childhood and still remembered? And only now did I discover that there’s not such a thing as a “runcible” spoon, nor a “bong” tree which I always thought was “palm” tree misheard! But I would bet there are lots of older people who remember “Abou Ben Adam” and interestingly, these are the same poems memorized by Americans of the same age.

  3. Marsha Howard Says:

    I, (aged person that I am), remember the first poem I ever memorized from the first poetry book I ever “owned.” It is, “Bed in Summer” by your own R.L. Stevenson.

  4. Marsha Howard Says:

    I, (aged person that I am), remember the first poem I ever memorized from the first poetry book I ever “owned.” It is, “Bed in Summer,” by your own R.L. Stevenson.
    Bart suggests “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge as being the first poem he recalls memorizing.

  5. Lilias Says:

    Brilliant! Stevenson’s on my radar – but not that poem (how funny that a little American girl learned RLS..) And I’d forgotten about the ol’ stately pleasure domes, but it would be perfect – I bet Bart’s not the only one who memorised that, so some heads might pop up in recognition. Maybe I should try an abridged version!

    I’ve got a head of chittering half-lines, and hardly a single whole poem. And I’m probably not the only one for that, either..

  6. Deborah Kilpatrick Says:

    I love this post, am looking at poetry with the groups in Glenochil Prison for the next few weeks, and was already planning to focus on reading aloud and memorizing. Any hints for poems you think might work well would be great! Also, any ‘memorising’ tips would be most welcome. My brain is full of random lines of poetry, but I’m ashamed to admit, nothing complete… Was forced as a child to memorise the Catechisim and some of the Psalms but have since managed to lose most of that too!

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