So, according to a BBC survey, poetry is 'lost' to four out of five of us - because only one in five of us can recite an entire poem by heart. Hmmm. I'm not sure the ability to recite by heart is any index of anything but our memorising abilities. I consider myself anything but 'lost to poetry' - I read it all the time - but I now have precious little by heart, simply because, as I get older, my memory (this form of memory anyway) has become increasingly leaky. When I was a child - especially between the ages of about 7 and 10 - I had a near-photographic memory for verse and could repeat a short poem after one or two readings, and longer passages with little difficulty. I remember astounding my parents, when I was I suppose 8, by memorising the lengthy narrative poem Edinburgh After Flodden (by W.E. Aytoun), of which I understood very little - it was the music I was memorising (as when I learnt the prologue to Henry V at a similarly precocious age). When I discovered In Memoriam - the first poem that really 'got' me - I learnt many pages of that off by heart... Gradually this enviable gift faded, and most of the stuff I'd memorised in those early years was lost. I think the last substantial poem I got by heart was Yeats's Among School Children, when I was at the end of my teens. This too didn't last long and I only have fragments of it now. And if I try to memorise any verse now, I can seldom get beyond about 8 lines with any hope of being able to retrieve it say six months later - the gift has most emphatically left me. But I don't think this has had the slightest impact on my love for and appreciation of poetry.
Is learning verse by heart a good or a bad thing? Neither in itself, I'd say - it's as good or as bad as what's being learnt. And it's a thing some people can do, some can't and many, I imagine (like me), once could and now can't. I wish I could. My dear old English master and mentor never lost the knack, and well into old age had reams of Shakespeare, Keats and much else by heart. A lucky man.