Friday 22 May 2009

By Heart

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.


  1. Like you, I had a weird sponge-like memory for verse as a young boy but the ability faded. I've just about still got Ozymandias, a chunk of Byron's The Prisoner of Chillon, a couple of Shakespeare soliloquies, the Nicene Creed, a handful of the shorter war poems and that old children's classic, Sea Fever.

    Songs are another mattter. It's amazing how many song lyrics the human brain can store - I'm not sure there's an upper limit. I must have thousands and thousands of songs in there somewhere - I generally 'learn' all the lyrics to a song after 2 or 3 listens even if I hate it. I can't trot them out cold, but the tune and rhythm will trigger the flood.

    I often wonder if everything we've ever heard is actually stored somewhere, and 'remembering' is actually just a case of being able to access it efficiently.

  2. Yes I think / hope that nothing's really lost in the end - and God you're so right about song lyrics - they never seem to go. It must be the music, as with my early memorising, which was more to do with sound than meaning. The longest narrative poems - Homeric epics etc - have generally been recited to music I think.

  3. Maybe people who have little aptitude for remembering poetry by heart can shine in other ways - by an unusual aptitude for recalling, say, sights, sounds, smells, textures or all of them combined into "atmospheres". I've no idea. Is there only one kind of memory, or more than one kind? I suppose we need a neurologist to tell us. Just a thought, before I forget.

  4. As for the question about ability to memorise & retain poetry - yes, I'd say a Good Thing (if only because such references can be helpful). But has to be worked at constantly(brain needs exercise, apparently). As Mark suggests, it is a matter of association(s). Renaissance thinkers, such as Bruno, devised all kinds of methods for developing capacity (books still scarce/expensive). This preceded by oral transmission of history/myth/poetry (still going in some parts of the world).
    Now we have Google, so memories a thing of past (ugh. Sorry)?
    I'm with you all on song lyrics, though - and why is it the really crappy ones turn out to be the most memorable?

  5. Just a thought on the source of this survey, the BBC. Since reading your post on their poetry week (of which this survey forms a part I assume) I have been looking out for reviews.

    Without exception the ones I've read have reckoned it to be patronising, condescending, insensitive, inappropriate, dim, and so on. I wonder whether the penny will drop? My guess is theory will trump evidence.

    On the other hand it has provoked a debate (though this is of course the last resort of justifications). Also Simon Schama is presenting what appears to be a promising programme on John Donne next week.

  6. Don't raise your hopes, Gaw - it's got Fiona feckin Shaw reading his poems, and gushing about them, and flirting with Schama. Ugh. On the other hand, Robert Webb on Eliot is good.

  7. I've got a good memory for limericks, the ruder the better

    and there's still my childhood poems stored on my rapidly disintegrating memory chip

    Kubla Khan
    dolce et decorum est
    A Smugglers Song
    Annus Mirabilis
    Loveliest of Trees, the cherry now

  8. My husband has retained large chunks of verse by various notable people. Sadly, the one he chooses to wheel out most often is Athabasca Dick. It invariably means he is over-refreshed.

  9. Memorization has nothing to do with with appreciation or comprehension. The BBC survey results are daft. My literature courses do not include the requirement that students memorize poetry, but I remain confident that most of them walk away at the end of the course with a better appreciation (and, in some cases, enjoyment) of poetry. Memorization? Bah!

  10. Oh, it was the programme you were referring to in your post. Shame.

    When I was learning Russian a long time ago I memorised a few poems by Esenin and Pushkin. Whilst the poems have stayed in my memory the Russian has gone. Or more correctly, I can still understand and speak Russian but only as long as it is confined to the words and phrases used in these poems.

    It is one of my greatest private pleasures, to recite these poems in a booming Russian voice when home alone. I wouldn't inflict it on anyone else, Christmas excepted when they all deserve it.

  11. Ah memory, there but for you would I go..
    The strangest of all powder in the human arsenal. My mother had a photographic memory until the day she died, dammit. Mine has been like a sieve and has been my downfall, Albert.

    You are absolutely right Fred, some Wordswurfwurf, a fair bit of Omar Kiam, then zilch, songs however ..Elvis, Sinatra, Bennett, even Clinton Ford, the entire Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte libretto, I can remember, no, picture them all.
    Poetry turns me on, its the smell and the colour, the words for me, are ephemera unfortunately.

    The BBC effort was at least not blighted with PamPam the ditty woman.

  12. i think we tend to remember what is relevant, but we often don't understand in what way it's relevant. Sometimes things which stick in the mind and seem utterly inconsequential are a bit more than that.

    i accidentally memorised the first 20 lines of De Rerum Naturae just by reading it half a dozen times. i don't even really understand Latin. After that i gave some credence to Milton's daughters having Ovid by heart from reading it aloud to him - even though they didn't understand a word.

    i wonder if 'good' poetry is easier to memorise, if in some sense it approaches the song-lyric quality Brit talks of, an innate musicality, whereas maybe the structures of 2nd rate poetry are less retainable, stick less in the mind. It would be interesting to conduct experiments, have people try to memorise a variety of 1st class poems, of various kinds (e.g. a sonnet of Shakespeare, lines from 4 Quartets or Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane) and then a variety of 2nd or even 3rd class poems, see if there's any difference in the ease of memorisation.

  13. Elberry, many people raised Catholic in the days of the Latin mass had the same experience.

    I had to memorize a bunch of Yeats poems for my Orals (pre-dissertation exams). My mind kept changing them in small ways...It was terrible, as my interviewers had texts to look at to check me.

    But my friend (and a poet, natch) Dana Gioia showed me the best way to memorize verse. Do it while walking -- it follows the rhythm of that activity and you remember it in your body as well as your mind. I'm such a bad student, though, that if I'm out for a long walk, I am usually listening to something on my iPod. And, yeah, I remember *a lot* of song lyrics!

  14. Heh, i memorised The Waste Land over 6 months of walking my dog when i was 20 or so, it does seem to help, though having a 9 stone dobermann running at you full tilt can be a bit of a distraction.