for writers and readers….

Do you know a poem by heart?

poppies in sunlightDoes Wordsworth or Rosen or Gerald Manley Hopkins trip off your tongue? Are whole poems hard-wired into your memory so they are with you always – you don’t need a kindle or book to own them completely?
If the answer is yes than a research project based at Cambridge University would like to hear from. Their survey is part of a three year investigation into whether learning poems should be part of our general education. Apparently Ofsted say that poetry  is the worst taught of all the literary subjects and there is a move to do something about it.

Today – October 2nd – is National Poetry Day and the Poetry and Memory survey has just been launched. The aim is to discover what poetry lives in the nation’s collective memory, and what these poems mean to the individuals who know them.

Take part

The poem can be any that you would be able to say from memory. It doesn’t matter if you have forgotten a few of the words – as long as you can remember most of it. It can be any type of poem, but not song lyrics or a nursery rhyme.

But you have to be:

  • 18 or over

  •  resident in the UK

  • have at least one poem that you know by heart

You can spend as much or as little time on the survey as you like – there are big white spaces for you to complete if you have a mind, but you don’t have to. Click HERE to take part in the survey and find out more about the research study.

I did the survey just after midnight last night. I have only one poem I know by heart and it is To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell. I came across it when I was studying metaphysical poets for A level English many, many years ago. No one  expected me to learn it, but the lines seeped into my soul because they just seem so perfect.
It’s a witty, ironic poem with an edge to it. It’s a beautiful poem with powerful imagery which you probably know even if you aren’t familiar  with the whole poem. It’s an intellectual exercise that has moments of genuine emotion. It’s about being young. I’ve pasted it below so you can see why I like it so much for yourself. (Except you’ll probably hate it – chances are I won’t like your choice either – one size definitely does not fit all.)

What poem powers your shower? What can you remember by heart? And do you think it would be a good idea to introduce learning by rote back into schools?

To His Coy Mistress

By Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires and more slow;

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;

Two hundred to adore each breast,

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For, lady, you deserve this state,

Nor would I love at lower rate.

       But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found;

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust;

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

       Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

6 comments on “Do you know a poem by heart?

  1. philipparees
    October 2, 2014

    I can quite see why that would lodge in the mind of an adolescent- both the sentiment and the formality. I got drunk on Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill, and Hopkins The Windhover and remember whole lines but not enough to qualify. A good post for poetry day.

    • bridget whelan
      October 2, 2014

      Getting drunk on Dylan Thomas – delicious idea and I know exactly what you mean.

  2. A Teenage Poet
    October 2, 2014

    I’ve had to memorise a few poems over my high school/middle school years, but I purposely remembered William Ernest Henley’s Invictus. I often recite it to myself to make sure I don’t forget it. I know it seems a rather mainstream poem to know, but it truly helps me when I’m in a trying situation – I repeated it over and over in my head last year when we had to run unreasonably long distances in soccer.

    • bridget whelan
      October 3, 2014

      I magine that Invictus has a great beat to run to, especially when you have to push yourself. Interesting that you had to learn some poems at school – good training for a poet but did you hate it at the time? Here’s Invictus for anyone who is not familiar with it and that includes me but, of course, some lines are very familiar…

      By William Ernest Henley
      Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
      I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

      In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
      Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

      Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
      And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

      It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
      I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

      • A Teenage Poet
        October 3, 2014

        I actually was quite excited to learn the poems, because I knew I didn’t have the discipline to learn many myself at that age, so I was glad to have a reason to.

  3. bridget whelan
    October 5, 2014

    It will be interesting to find out if other people share your experience – I think this is what the research study wants to find out. I have always found it very, very hard to learn by rote. If I had been forced to do it I think it could have turned me off poetry but, having said that, I do recognise how wonderful it would be to have a storehouse of poems in my head.

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This entry was posted on October 2, 2014 by in Muse, News and tagged , , , , .


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