Last week I wrote about idolatry. This week I learned it.

Driving to work, I quite often see someone singing at the wheel. If it’s a man, Nessun Dorma; a woman: I Will Survive.

In my case, I’m not singing (the mouth moves in a different way), I’m talking. I’m talking through a sonnet, line by line.

It can be dangerous. I think I have the whole sonnet safely heart-stowed, and then I acquire a snag round line 7 and I can’t bear it. The card with the sonnet is on the seat next to me. I could pick it up while driving, glance at it and ease my pain. Quite often I pull in: it’s safer. 

Eventually I don’t have to stop because the poem is safe in head and heart, for a while at least.

Poet Ruth Pitter lost her sight in the last years of her life, but in her sightless nineties she could still recall swathes of poetry. I’ve always envied this. My mother, too, had a remarkable memory for the words of poems and songs. In my case, I have to work at it. I remember lines and snatches effortlessly, but the whole thing requires extended exercise.

But it is hugely satisfying. I have no idea why I’m not learning one all the time. Don Paterson famously says a poem is “a little machine for remembering itself”. He says this, I think, in more than one place but certainly in the introduction to his Faber book of 101 Sonnets. Why do I remember Paterson’s phrase? Because it’s so neat and so true of formal poems. The clicks and hinges, the tucking into place of phrase and cadence – these are all about meaning and memory.

I don’t think sound is everything in poetry, but it’s a great deal. Last week I believed I had examined #105, ‘Let not my love be called idolatry’ minutely. When I came to learn it by saying it over and over aloud, first I began to pay close attention to the repetitions. Because repetitions, in learning by heart, can both help and hinder. Obviously, in the idolatry sonnet ‘Fair, kind and true’ comes in three times, each time at the start of the line. Three words, three times.

The repetition I hadn’t fully clocked was ‘wondrous’ which comes in twice (‘still’ comes in twice too). Here’s the sonnet so you can see what I mean as I talk it through.

Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
Which three till now, never kept seat in one.

It’s only when you say the word ‘wondrous’ aloud (or only in my case) that you hear the ‘one’ inside it and therefore hear what the word is doing. You also hear the inner rhyme, like the Ariston and on and on advert: ‘Still constant in a wondrous excellence; / Therefore my verse to constancy confined, / One thing expressing’.

On and on. It’s in ‘invention’ too and ‘song’. It’s the last word of the whole poem: the high point. You, WS is saying, are The One. If this isn’t idolatry, what is? But in this poem, idolatry is dismissed as a matter of multiple idols, whereas true love is ‘three themes in one’. It’s another bit of blasphemous trickery – using the terms of ‘true religion’ to describe human love.

But Shakespeare doesn’t care. He’s creating a little machine for remembering itself, and it does. I thought at first the weak phrase was ‘varying to other words’. It doesn’t seem very memorable. It almost seems to cancel out the uniqueness of ‘Fair, kind and true’. If these are the only themes, why talk about varying them?

All Shakespeare’s sonnets have inner connections: often the logic and the syntax is as neat as the sound. Here ‘varying to other words’ connects directly to ‘And in this change’. I wondered (sorry about the pun) last week whether ‘change’ could have had a currency connection in Elizabethan England. I think it must have done. ‘And in this change’ must link back to ‘varying’ and link forward to ‘invention spent’, and further forward to the ‘wondrous scope’ that this ‘affords’. It may be that ‘scope’ shadow-rhyming with ‘Pope’ is going too far. Nevertheless, it forms another link in my memory chain.

Memorising is very odd. Certain lines and phrases are like safe havens or ‘barleys’ as we used to say at school (which may be a corruption of ‘parleys’). You arrive at them with relief:  they ‘click’ more easily and resolutely than the rest. For me, it’s ‘Therefore my verse to constancy confined’. I love that phrase. I like the way ‘Therefore’ lodges neatly, and its logical link to ‘argument’. I savour the alliteration of ‘to constancy confined’ and the pun on ‘constancy’ as faithfulness but also simply Ariston and on and on.

And I adore ‘Which three, till now, never kept seat in one’. For some reason the ‘Which’ is particularly satisfying to me. Again, it’s a hinge, it points back nicely but it somehow helps to stack ‘three’ against ‘one’ at the other end of the line, while ‘never’ breaks the iambic pattern so thoroughly, so pleasurably, with such an irrevocable surge towards the resonant ONE at the end.

It is unforgivable to go on and on and on about one sonnet over two blog weeks. But learning it by heart changes everything. I still think the rehearsal of idolatry and Catholics and the Book of Common Prayer is interesting, but nothing compared to the hinges and clicks, the soundscape of the sonnet.

For example, why is it easy to remember line five? ‘Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind’? The word ‘Kind’ hasn’t featured in the first four lines. I think it’s because of ‘all alike my songs and praises be’, a lovely phrase in itself. The sound in ‘alike’ is picked up in ‘Kind’, and so it fits. It all fits.

Shakespeare is astonishing. It was when I began to memorise parts of plays at school that I realized something extraordinary was going on. It is still happening. So this week, I also memorized #30 ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’. Much of that was on the train, so more difficult. However, there is a particular pleasure in bits of Shakespeare that have found their way to being famous in other context – in this case ‘remembrance of things past’.

And although I could write about #30 too from now till lunchtime, especially about the way the currency metaphor connects the entire sonnet from the (debtors’) court ‘sessions’ in line one to the ‘losses are restored’ in line 14, I’ll just note I was surprised that ‘moan’ in line 8 preceded ‘fore-bemoanèd moan’ in line 11. It occurred to me that I’d got the first ‘moan’ wrong. I thought it might have been ‘mourn th’expense of many a vanished sight’. (Shakespeare does use ‘mourn’: it’s in #71 ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’.)

But no, ‘moan’ is correct. And of course it is correct. Because the ‘fore-bemoanèd moan’ not only refers to past griefs, but also to the ‘moan’ earlier in the poem – and, even more importantly, a key word in the poem is ‘woe’. The most difficult line to say is: ‘And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste’, but it introduces the key sound ‘oh oh oh’, ‘old woes’. Hence the absolute necessity of ‘moan’, which will also echo in ‘flow’ and then another ‘woe’ and then ‘heavily from woe to woe tell o’er’. The whole poem is a symphony of lamentation, until the final couplet, which is suddenly (perhaps too suddenly) upbeat. The sonnet’s full of ‘w’ consonants too” when, woe, waste, weep, wail, drown, new, which, while, sorrow. Favourite haven phrases? ‘Love’s long since cancelled woe’.

This week I’m going to learn ‘My own heart let me more have pity on’. Gerard Manley Hopkins is harder than Shakespeare because the expression is so very compressed, but ‘thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet’ is not only irresistible, it’s suited to our current climate and it is now on a BardCard, just the right size for learning.

Please drive carefully.



Poems by heart. Should we?

The heart is the love symbol, the main machine, the organ that runs everything. It creates the rhythm we hear as soon as we hear anything.Image of heart as machine

Badum, badum, badum, badum. Life, life, life — that’s what the heart says (iambically). We can learn by it in French and English, but not, so far as I can see, in German, Spanish or Italian.  But that’s just the idiom. A good idiom, though. ‘Learn by heart’ strikes me as a whole lot more appealing than auswendig lernen.

Michael Gove famously thinks children should learn poems by it. Badum, badum, badum, badum. Should they? Shouldn’t they? Do we care?

According to a Guardian poll in June 2012, 42% said yes, 58% said no. Michael Rosen, in whose interests it might be for kids to learn poems by heart, especially his own, says (as any worthy poet should) that making it compulsory smacks of ‘government diktat land’.

The thing is, people do learn stuff by heart. All the time. They learn what they like, and frequently it’s rude. My other half, who has no time whatsoever for that thing I call ‘poetry’, has a substantial repertoire of disreputable verse and memorable sayings. Last night, I was cooking and he padded into the kitchen behind me silently, making me jump. ‘You crept up on me!’ I said.

‘I crept into the crypt, crapped, and then crept out again,’ was his rejoinder. He learned this as a wee boy, and the words stuck for life. Some of the things he remembers are too rude to share. But others . . .

Do your balls hang low?
Do they waggle to and fro?
Do you get a funny feeling
When you’re hanging from the ceiling?

This is the sort of thing teachers might want to stop kids reciting. But kids learn all sorts of things off by heart, all the time. They learn advertising jingles, words from songs, rap, rubbish. Stuff that sticks in the head and won’t come out. Teachers want to control what sticks. It’s not a question of what we remember. It’s what we can’t forget.

The BBC still has 15 compulsory poems on a web page dating back to 2009, when they did a learning poetry revival. I don’t know whether they actually arrived at a UK  Child Poetry Recital Champion, though that was the plan. However, the 14 compulsory poems, though doomed by the word ‘compulsory’, are not half bad. I found I knew parts of all of them (by heart), except Grace Nichols and Ben Zephaniah: but theirs are great poems too. I should love to have known ‘Alligator’ and ‘Talking Turkeys’ when I was a kid.

I don’t know whether learning poetry as a kid does you good. I do think chanting and repetition are fun, especially with gestures and actions. And if you did learn, say, Belloc’s ‘Matilda’ as a child, how could you not want to share it as an adult?

Does learning poems turn people into poets? No more than learning songs makes you into a singer songwriter.

But should you find yourself making poems, you learn most about the art from the poems you know well. And learning poems as an adult, if you’re a poet, is an excellent idea. You get inside them that way. You feel how they work. Badum, badum, badum. You pace them out. You learn their sound secrets.

Don Paterson says, in one of those aphorisms of his, that ‘a poem is a little machine for remembering itself’. Some of them are tricky mechanisms. If you try to learn one and find yourself in serious difficulty somewhere around the middle, often it’s because the machine is short of a valve or two. On the other hand, some poems are all too easy to learn. What you learn from learning them is how to be slick, quick and empty. It’s better to be rude.

For what it’s worth, I think poets should learn some of their own poems. By heart. If you do that, it’s a kind of test drive. The line you can’t get – why can’t you get it? Usually because that line’s not ‘right’. So re-tune the machine.

Besides, when you read – if you do read – to an audience, knowing a couple of the poems by heart means you can use your voice as an instrument. You’re not reading. You’re offering the sound and meaning, syllable by syllable.

One of the BBC’s 15 ‘compulsory’ poems is Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ (1892). Someone told me Yeats began to resent this poem because it was so widely known (a bit like Alastair Reid feels about ‘Scotland’, or Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’). Either way, you can tell, when you hear him read it , that he had it by heart, had it like a song. I never consciously learned it but I know most of it. When I do anything with particular deliberation, I think to myself I will arise and go now. And whenever I hear bees in the garden I think of the ‘bee-loud glade’. It’s the same sort of phrase as ‘crept into the crypt’ – utterly satisfying.

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ taught me about the power of the short line, the emotive power of falling back from a long lilting phrase to a short one. The middle stanza drops back from (line 3) ‘There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow’ to ‘And evening full of the linnet’s wings’ (line 4). It’s a lovely movement and the linnet’s wings are lovely, if not quite as good as the ‘bee-loud glade’ in the last line of the opening stanza.

But that’s the point. The poet is saving himself. He’s going for the full whammy in his last line, which repeats the rhythmic pattern of ‘bee-loud glade’ in a line a whole syllable shorter. A magnificent last line. A line to provoke a sitting ovation. Let’s hear it for W B Yeats:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


Shakespeare said it first. Or at least Don Paterson’s version of Shakespeare’s sonnet 102 did:

That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming
The owner’s tongue doth publish everywhere.

Shakespeare said it first. Or at least Don Paterson’s version of Shakespeare’s sonnet 102 did:

That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming
The owner’s tongue doth publish everywhere.

Which leads DP into:

Oh yes – overpublication is a terrible thing in a poet, and only arouses suspicion. It looks like it’s coming way too easily, meaning either it’s not costing you enough, or you’re insincere, or you’re probably repeating yourself. (And it’s all too easy to do: readers like to read their poetry as if it were something rare and precious. A poet can saturate his or her market just by publishing every three years.)

Yes, it’s the opposite of ‘tell everyone if you plan to go on a diet’. The quotation is, of course, from DP’s recent commentary Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which, among other things, includes tips and advice to poets from One Who Knows. Not everyone will agree with him here, needless to say – though I do.

That’s because the pile of poems and anthologies at my elbow grows daily and there is a point at which it all becomes like too much pudding (not padding, pudding). You only look forward to dessert as a special thing, if you’re going to be able to get up and walk after you’ve eaten it.

This creates a wee problem for those poets who are hugely prolific, and possibly for  those who are currently writing a poem a day for NatPoMo. Well – it does if writing and poems and sharing them with the world are seen as hand-in-hand activities, as they are by many.

This week, on Facebook, poet and publisher Peter Daniels shared Book  Business comments from someone called Neal Goff (great name) of Egremont Associates, a firm that helps publishers sell stuff. And what does he say?

. . . in order to succeed in selling books directly to consumers . . .  publishers are going to have to step back and nurture gatherings of consumers in the consumers’ interest areas before creating content that those gatherings want. This is the antithesis of what publishers were once able to do, which was publish content and then create audience interest.

Oo-er missus. I was at one of Colin Will’s book launches yesterday – lovely readings from Geoff Cooper, Eddie Gibbons and Lyn Moir to support their new pamphlet publications. Was that nurturing gatherings of consumers? I suppose it was in a way.

As is Rob Mackenzie’s Poetry at the . . . Store this very evening, at which one of ‘my’ new poets, Matthew Stewart, launches his new pamphlet (32 pages of poems compiled carefully over several years).

But I don’t think we can nurture enough consumers to beat the book battle. Nurturing people is very time-consuming. It’s hellish trying to nurture folk and produce poetry publications at the same time. Are you being nurtured as you read this? If not, email me. I will send chocolate.

Jon Stone suggests “alternatives to the single author volume” may be the answer. More anthologies. Anthologies do seem to reach more common readers, or readers who like their theme, which can counteract the Fear of Po. The two big sources of income for poetry activity, in the days of vanishing AC funding, must surely be competitions and anthologies (take a look at Bloodaxe’s top ten titles).

This gives me a nice opportunity to work in a mention of the new Grey Hen volume, out this week, Get Me Out of Here! Poems for trying circumstances. Quirky (often funny) poems by “older women poets” of whom I am one.  A very enjoyable read and probably going to be marketed to a nurtured gathering of older women readers (there will be noteworthy exceptions). We older women (OWs) are still, I imagine, the main poetry-book-buying group in the UK. (YWs reading this: you can be an OW eventually. If you want to know what it’s like, read this book. YMs: tough.)

And there’s another excellent new anthology from Leicester-based Soundswrite, this time women from aged 25 to 98! A pleasure to read. If I were in the area, I would want to be involved with this group: a place where nature and nurture are combined. (YMs: sorry.)

But Mr Goff suggests that “the internet is the best marketing medium ever invented”. Maybe so. Maybe no. It connects with a vast number of people, theoretically, but that vast number of people is having a vast amount of stuff marketed to it every second of every hour of every day of every. . . .

Therefore, like her [Philomel], I sometime hold my tongue,
Because I would not dull you with my song.

Po-rating processing

I spent a long time yesterday collating the different ratings of a poetry pamphlet from the 20 or so HappenStance reviewers who returned them. I made a nice table and then messed about cheerfully with statistics and averages, and sent off emails to those who hadn’t returned their ratings because the pamphlet either hadn’t arrived or had got buried.

Sometimes almost all poetry judgements seem to me to be totally subjective. It reassures me, in a rating exercise like this one, that despite the fact that some opinions do vary fairly radically, the majority come inside a very similar band.

I spent a long time yesterday collating the different ratings of a poetry pamphlet from the 20 or so HappenStance reviewers who returned them. I made a nice table and then messed about cheerfully with statistics and averages, and sent off emails to those who hadn’t returned their ratings because the pamphlet either hadn’t arrived or had got buried.

Sometimes almost all poetry judgements seem to me to be totally subjective. It reassures me, in a rating exercise like this one, that despite the fact that some opinions do vary fairly radically, the majority come inside a very similar band.

I spent a long time yesterday collating the different ratings of a poetry pamphlet from the 20 or so HappenStance reviewers who returned them. I made a nice table and then messed about cheerfully with statistics and averages, and sent off emails to those who hadn’t returned their ratings because the pamphlet either hadn’t arrived or had got buried.

Sometimes almost all poetry judgements seem to me to be totally subjective. It reassures me, in a rating exercise like this one, that despite the fact that some opinions do vary fairly radically, the majority come inside a very similar band.

I’ve been reading Don Paterson’s lecture about ‘trope and domain theory’. I like this very much, complex as it is, but particularly the bit about the contract between reader and poet, the idea that poetry is a way of reading, rather than a way of writing, the ‘deal’ being that ‘poetry’ is meant to yield up richer levels of meaning than ordinary text. It concurs with one of my own theories  in a less academic article that I’ve never published, but may yet . . . . It’s called A Demand and a Promise. Where was I?

Yes, the po-rating. How you judge what is going on. Actually no amount of trope and domain theory quite explains the judgement process, nor the absolute fact that different readers come with radically different expectations to text. But we’re in an age of Judgements. We rate all sorts of stuff. We (apparently) thrive on The X Factor and Britain (or America or Holland or wherever)’s got Talent. How I hate these shows! What I loathe most is the bit where contestants wait for verdicts and the camera zooms in on their expectant, tense faces. Even in PoetryWorld we’ve started to simulate this. Poets attend ceremonies where winners are announced, where tense expectation is meant to be part of the fun. It seems to be assumed that no-one would go to the event without an element of Surprise.

Years ago I discovered how to undermine this silly process on a local level. It was a poetry competition in Fife and I had entered. They sent a circular letter to all entrants shortlisted, inviting them to come to the award ceremony where winners would be announced. Their shortlist was very long and actually I believe it consisted of nearly all (if not all) entrants. I returned the slip saying I wouldn’t be there.

I got a phone call two days later from an council official who said they were very sorry to hear I wasn’t coming, in fact they were concerned that I wasn’t coming, was there any way I could possibly manage to be there? It didn’t take much to work out that I must be a prize-winner. So I went, and the result of the competition was less of a surprise to me than to all the other audience members.

A couple of years later in a similar situation I deliberately didn’t return the slip to say whether or not I’d be there. This time I was not surprised when the phone call came. The same trick worked for a significantly bigger event in London ten years later but I won’t say what. Mustn’t let too many cats out of bags. I refuse to be part of a climate of false intensity. There’s enough in life to be scared about without that.

On Woman’s Hour this week, there was a feature on PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome). Now that is one scary subject. It took me back. Once I was interviewed for a BBC radio programme myself on this very subject, though the feature wasn’t as good as this one and I seem to remember feeling cross when I heard the broadcast. This time they interviewed someone who had a hysterectomy to sort out her problem — a drastic step if ever there was one. She recounted some of the experiences she had had . . . and it all came back.

PMS (which I used to call PMT) changed the course of my life. It affected me radically for at least two and a half weeks out of my menstrual cycle from the age of 16 to 32.  I was a wreck for a lot of the time. During one phase of extreme desperation, I saw an elderly Irish locum at my general practice. I must have been 22. In those days, doctors could (and did) smoke cigarettes during a consultation. He took a drag on his cigarette and asked me if I had a boyfriend.

I was tearful.  ‘Yes,’ I said.

He thought for a little while. ‘Does he touch you . . .  down there?’ he said.

I can’t remember what I said, only how surprised I was by the question, and how profoundly embarrassed.

He went on to suggest that regular sexual intercourse would stimulate my hormones and solve the problem. I saw a lot of other people over the years who suggested equally stupid things. One was African: he told me that in his country, unlike the UK, women were used to bearing pain and accepted it as a natural part of life (he missed the point that pain was not the problem). Another (a psychiatrist) said the symptoms were “too omnipresent” to constitute premenstrual syndrome. A third said maybe it was just the way I was — I had to learn to live with it.

Then I read Premenstrual Syndrome – the Curse that Can Be Cured by Michael Brush and Judy Lever.  I wrote to Brush (who was then in practice at St Thomas’s Hospital in London) to say ‘Oh no, it can’t be cured. I’m the proof.’

He wrote back. He suggested my GP do a referral and he would see me, which is what happened. Such a kind man. The first person who talked to me as though I was intelligent; the first person who said there would be something that would help.

I was lucky with the first thing we tried (he said if it didn’t work, there were other options). High doses of Vitamin B6 and Evening Primrose Oil transformed my life. I had tried B6 before but low doses had no effect  (one gynaecologist told me that if low dose B6 had no effect, there was absolutely no point in increasing the dose: he was wrong). With these supplements, I still had symptoms but nothing I couldn’t live with. Over years, I got better and better.

Now I’m so very much older – 56 – and no longer menstruate, I am fine all the time. It’s completely amazing. But because I lost so much time when I was younger, I have been running to keep up ever since. One of the things this taught me is the sheer miracle of being all right. It is almost worth having been through it, just to know the difference. Sometimes I forget what a miracle it is, and then something reminds me. Look at the garden, the sun, the clouds in the sky, the miracle of being all right. Whether or not you believe in God, you can’t help silently shouting, Thank you.