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.