29th February 2016
Years ago when I was at school, memorising poetry was considered a bore and a chore; learners were generally indifferent, if not openly hostile, towards the activity. The reasons are obvious to me now; we had no choice in the matter, our teachers showed little enthusiasm for it, and as far as I can recall no one ever challenged our apathy with encouragement or celebration of its potential benefits.
As a result, if we thought about it at all, learning poetry seemed a pointless rote exercise. But even at the time I could not deny that once learnt, a poem was permanently lodged in the memory, just like ‘times tables’ we chanted daily. Like it or not, from childhood, I had co-ownership of some elegantly phrased language. Several decades on, I now realise that these ‘lodgers’ rewarded me generously for the trifling effort I made to acquire them; and they keep giving.
What benefits can this ongoing ‘companionship’ have for us? In the early 1960s, I was required to recite poems at local public speaking events. Despite worrying at the thought of being tested on an ability to regurgitate lines I scarcely understood and hardly heard as I uttered them, I found I could readily intone their musicality. Adults seemed impressed with the achievement too. So, aged seven, I was really chuffed at being (momentarily) the centre of attention as I showcased regular metre and rhyme in poems such as Charlotte Druitt Cole’s The Yellow Fairy. (1) In those days, I enjoyed unsuppressed pleasure at reciting children’s verse under adult scrutiny; today, the feat of recalling it all so vividly, throughout an immense gap in time amazes me!
Discourse about the human condition, experienced through set texts, held my interest and ensured my studies in English Literature felt relevant at secondary school; throughout my teenage years, poetry’s power to express my unarticulated sensibilities – to speak, as it were for me – was empowering. Of course, pupils were still expected to memorise chunks of literature – ironically for the prosaic function of illustrating points in essays, rather than any deep, intrinsic purpose. But by this time I had also discovered and memorised poems that explored themes of love and loss – new feelings which often seemed overwhelming and induced stunned silence in me. By learning verse by heart, I felt able to demonstrate greater expansiveness; at any moment, I could ‘piggyback’ on articulations that ‘said it’ better than I ever could. As Samuel Johnson observed, poetry offered ‘the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.’(2)
In addition to the more intense ownership of poetry learnt by heart, its durability is impressive. To carry an exceptionally well expressed thought with you through life’s journey is to retain something permanent in an irrepressibly transient world. It represents something to cling on to in rough times and to celebrate in good; and poetry learned by heart is an extraordinarily ‘unadorned’ and ‘natural’ activity requiring absolutely no props, notes, costumes, stage, – no accoutrements whatsoever. Today, simple antidotes to the exhausting and dispiriting speed and complexity of modern life are popular; ‘mindfulness’ is sweeping the nation as the latest means of calming the mind and raising the spirits. But Learning and reciting poetry to oneself also has the power to soothe and console; and verse lends dignity to emotion. According to John Donne ‘He tames it that fetters it in verse’(3), and by acquiring it, we often understand it more completely and benefit from its abiding instruction and comfort.
British Folk Ballads are an excellent resource for teaching literary concepts to children. Simple language, strong regular rhythms, repeated four line abcb rhyme scheme and incremental repetition (in which a phrase recurs with minor differences as the story progresses) are all wonderfully effective devices to enable a listener to quickly commit verse to memory – as of course was the intention in the oral tradition of which ballads occupy a major part; they are also a useful template for creative writing, with narratives that are often full of tension, drama, mystery, comedy. The listener/reader is often immediately plunged into a mysterious and dramatic situation, without narrator comment as in the opening of The Unquiet Grave:
Cold blows the wind to my true love
And gently drops the rain
I only had but one true love
And in green wood she lies slain. (4)
Ballad narrators usually do not speak in the first person (unless speaking as a character in the story), and often do not comment on their reactions to the emotional content of the ballad. So there is plenty of scope for the speaker and listener to play an active role in performance and interpretation.
My enthusiasm for poetry learnt by heart owes much to the traditional ballad form and I sincerely hope that in over three decades of teaching, I have persuaded at least a few learners that there is much more to memorizing verse than the purpose of passing examinations.
Much more could be said in on this topic but for me the simple pleasure of learning and sharing what Coleridge described as ‘the best words in the best order’ (5) is a form of art – one that it is accessible to us all.
The Yellow fairy
There lived in a laburnum tree
A little fairy fellow,
He wore a feather in his cap,
And he was dressed in yellow.
He sang a song the whole day long
So merry and so clever,
But when I climbed to peep at him,
He flew away for ever.
(2) Samuel Johnson Lives of the Poets 1791
(3) John Donne The Triple Fool (Songs and Sonnets)
(4) “The Unquiet Grave” is an English Ballad in which a young man mourns his dead love too hard and prevents her from obtaining peace. It is thought to date from 1400 and was collected in 1868 by Francis James Child, as Child Ballad number 78
(5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria
About the author: Andy Revell was born in the small town of Cuckfield to which he returned after an extended sojourn of twenty years living and working in Birmingham (where he was awarded his first Degree in Education), Wolverhampton, Southampton and the New Forest. In addition to teaching, he has had stints working as a postman, factory worker, auctioneer’s assistant, hospital porter, theatre technician and auxiliary nurse.
Andy has taught a variety of subjects at a range of levels including: PGCE, English Language, Literature, Communication Studies, Media Studies, Film Studies, Drama, Integrated Science and Sports Studies having worked full time in seven different establishments over a period of 37 years.
He has 4 children and 4 grandchildren – and is immensely proud of them all!
His hobbies include Local History, Sports, Film, Theatre, Music and perhaps not surprisingly he enjoys reading poetry!