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Poetry By Heart Blog

The value of the memorised poem

9th December 2019

Memorised poemBetween 2013 and 2016, Debbie Pullinger and David Whitley conducted a research project – funded by the Leverhulme foundation – into how the value of the memorised poem was experienced and perceived. They conducted an online survey in which nearly 500 people participated, with a good spread of age groups from 18 to over 80. Participants were asked about when they learned poems and for what purposes, as well as being invited to reflect in more depth about a particular poem that had stayed in their memory and held special value for them. This research provides a very interesting backdrop – and to some extent an evidence base or even rationale – for Poetry By Heart. Below David Whitley offers some extracts from the Project’s main findings, together with reflections on issues raised that may be particularly relevant for Poetry By Heart.

In the final report we divided the central findings into three main categories or sets of issues:

  • what kinds of poems were held in people’s memories and had become particularly important to them;
  • how memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences;
  • and how memorisation affected participants’ understanding and experience of the poem.

What kinds of poems were held in people’s memories and had become particularly important to them?

It became clear that – in aggregate – the poems participants singled out as being particularly important for them could be seen as embodying a kind of recitation canon. This canon, moreover, existed in participants’ hearts and minds independently of any institutional context, even if a proportion of the poems had originally been learned in school. (Actually this proportion was rather less than we had expected, under half the total). So what seemed to characterise this informal canon? Here we quote selectively from the report of project’s findings:

‘The memorised poems selected by respondents may be seen as exemplifying an informal tradition. Insofar as this ‘tradition’ represents an informal alternative to more conventional canons, it has implications for how we might think about both the ‘uses’ of poetry, and the cultural processes of selection more widely… The single most striking feature of this informal memorised canon is that it is more conservative than the poetry syllabuses currently found in schools and higher education, being highly centred on male, white, British and Irish writers, most of whom have been dead for at least fifty years. Compared with those syllabuses, however, the memorised canon continues to value popular verse of the past which is no longer regarded academically, as well as giving a significant place to poetry with a strong appeal to the ear and to humorous works. Moreover, although largely conservative in cultural terms, elements of ethnic and regional diversity are clearly present. Given that the poetic tradition is often considered a cultural asset which underpins the expressive richness of the English language, we feel there is therefore scope for the alternative tradition of poems, held in the heartlands of memory, to be seen as a positive aspect of national identity, especially if its conservative qualities are reinvigorated and extended by practices incorporating greater diversity.’

A few reflections in relation to Poetry By Heart –

The significant poems selected by participants were conservative not only in terms of authorship (a huge preponderance of white, dead, males) but also in terms of poetic forms. Virtually none of the poems selected were in free verse or what tends to be categorised now as ‘open forms’, without a regular rhyme scheme or metrical structure. Clearly rhyme and metre help poems stick in the memory, but they also signal ‘traditional’. Over 100 years after the first great modernist experiments in free verse started, the freedoms associated with open forms are hardly ground-breaking or iconoclastic any more, but – with enormous variation – they are the forms that most living poets writing in English choose to work in. The informal recitation canon appears to be quite determinedly old fashioned, therefore, and Poetry By Heart has consciously set out to offer choices for memorisation that are both more inclusive in terms of the voice, ethnicity and origins of the poets, and wider ranging in terms of forms. Still, the Poetry By Heart anthologies try to recognise the continued appeal of more traditional metres and rhyme schemes for recitation as well as including a larger proportion of lighter, more humorous and popular poems than tend to be used in classrooms.

How memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences

For nearly all of our respondents, knowing some poetry by heart is regarded as an enriching, life-enhancing experience. The survey ranking gave an indication of the effects most likely to be experienced. Appreciation of the poem itself was the most prevalent, closely followed by the role of the poem as an emotional resource. However, the other suggested benefits were fairly evenly represented, as shown here (percentages rounded to nearest decimal place).

  • Helps me appreciate the poem more – 72%
  • Gives me a source of comfort in tough times – 63%
  • Helps me understand the poem better – 56%
  • Is good for being able to play with language – 54%
  • Helps me to make sense of life – 44%
  • Is good for making connections between things – 42%
  • Gives me confidence that I am able to remember things generally – 40%
  • Helps with being able to express ideas – 39%
  • Makes no difference- 3%

Fleshed out by findings from the qualitative textual analysis, the picture of a memorised poem is, typically, of a personal possession with connections to people who have been loved, or to significant life experiences. These connections are continually active in the experience of the memorised poem and may present themselves in different forms over time. Memorised poems tend to be transmitted in vivo, and are perceived as being alive in a different way from poetry that is accessed only in its printed form. However, this condition of being embedded within life experience does not mean that the poem itself is necessarily perceived impressionistically or in a purely subjective mode. On the contrary, the respondents who experienced the poem in this way also tended to have a very strong sense of its formal and semantic qualities. What differentiates it from the poem as an object of literary study (where the textual, abstract or conceptual qualities are foregrounded) is that the memorised poem tends to retain its connection to a web of personal, embodied associations. Indeed, for these events and experiences, the poem may itself act as a powerful mnemonic, tagging them with significance and transfixing them within the inner life, over time. This in turn undoubtedly contributes to the memorised poem’s vital role as an emotional resource, but it is probably the combination of this mnemonic property with an internalised sense of the poem’s formal structure that enables it to work so effectively, as often reported, as a container for strong emotion

How memorisation affected participants’ understanding and experience of the poem.

The phrases ‘by rote’ and ‘by heart’ occur frequently in the open-ended survey responses. Our analysis suggests that these two colloquial expressions do point towards a real difference in the practices and processes of learning, which may in turn tend to produce different experiences of the memorised poem itself. The way individuals relate to a memorised poem is undoubtedly the product of a complex of factors that include personal psychology, family culture, and school experience. Nevertheless, the poem learned ‘by rote’ – where the goal tends be the memorisation itself rather than engagement with the poem – is less likely to be retained over a prolonged period, or may not be as fully appreciated or understood. Although a poem learned ‘by rote’ may take root and come to be experienced in a fuller way, our evidence indicates that a productive, fruitful relationship with a poem is more likely to result from learning that might be described as ‘by heart’. In contrast to more functionalist, mechanical forms of ‘rote’ learning, deep or organic learning may be characterised by a focus on the poem’s inherent qualities, including its sensory attributes, and by an attitude of curiosity and playfulness. Many respondents experiencing poems in this way describe them in terms that cast the poem as a living entity – a finding which correlates with recent neurological understandings of the distinctive way in which the brain perceives and processes art forms more generally (McGilchrist, 2008).

Evidence from our interviews also indicates that memorised poems tend to exist in relationship with other forms, within a wide mental and textual landscape that may include:

  • wholly and imperfectly recalled poems, odd lines and fragments
  • poetry in published volumes and anthologies
  • handwritten personal notebook and quotations, exchanged with others orally and in writing.

Page and memory are experienced as mutually supportive counterparts within a multimodal nexus. Thus, memorised poetry may be understood not as a single or discrete category, but as one form of engagement within an ecology of interdependent forms and exchanges.

 

In summary, we believe these insights constitute an important perspective for current educational culture, where poetry memorisation is sometimes perceived as purely functional (a means to an end), as a superficial form of engagement, or even as a counter-productive practice. Our findings indicate the potential benefits of integrated memorisation practices that work in synergy with other forms of engagement, performance, appreciation, and meaning making. Memorised poems, in this context, may constitute an immensely valuable resource for life.

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maggie and milly and molly and may – building courage and confidence

7th November 2019

Horrible thing_edited 800px
There are many different ways of getting started with Poetry By Heart but teachers’ top tip is always to give pupils some encounter with poetry recitation before asking them to give it a go. After all, if you’ve never seen or heard anyone reciting a poem before, how would you even know what “it” is?

In this blog I’ll be laying out a tried and tested activity for a whole class encounter to build courage and confidence in a safe and supportive, fun and collective way. You need a single lesson. We’ve used this activity with a feisty class of year 10s, a little group of primary school children in a hospital education unit, and with 46 Dutch teachers! Every time, the energy was fantastic, we had fun and by the end the very different participants were well on the way to having a poem by heart!

Here goes…

The sounds, patterns and rhythms of names

I start by warming up voices, experimenting with the sounds, patterns and rhythms of words, activating the memory cells and breaking the ice about performance. This is done with a little fun activity around names.

I tell the class the members of my team are Julie, Tim, Lily, Tom and Mike. I make it easier to remember this list by using patterns of sound and rhythm to make it enjoyable to the ear and pleasing to say, like this: “Tim, Tom, Mike/Julie and Lily”, and as I say this aloud I exaggerate the short sharp bursts of Tim, Tom, Mike, the long oo of Julie and the ly-ly of Julie and Lily. The class gets the idea and I ask them, in groups of 4 or 5, to come up with their own line, then they rehearse it, ready to perform.

I start. I say “My team is Tim, Tom, Mike,/Julie and Lily”. The next group has to say “That was Tim, Tom, Mike,/Julie and Lily and we are………” and they fill the blank with their line. The next group has to start with the previous group’s line and then give their own. And so on. We’re five minutes in and already everyone has remembered a bit of wordplay and they have recited it from memory. Not bad! Applause!

‘maggie and milly and molly and may’

I’ve loved e.e. cummings’s poem ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ since I first encountered it in an English lesson aged about 12 or 13. This activity works well with this poem because it’s short, it’s in couplets with one key image each, and though its rhythm is markedly varied in places there is a sing-song quality to parts of it too. But feel free to adapt this for any poem you like!

I get the poem up on the screen. It’s here on the 11+ anthology timeline. Pupils could have a paper copy of it too.

Joining in

I tell pupils I’m going to read it aloud 3 times and I invite them to join in when they’re ready. I start and I keep going, whatever my hesitations or stumbles, moving along briskly and adding a few actions to start ‘fixing’ the images. At the relevant moments, I hold an imaginary shell to my ear; I wave my five fingers languidly; I do a bit of walking sideways (though I don’t blow bubbles); and I hold a stone that grows from small to large. The pupils I’ve done this with have always joined in, and surprisingly quickly!

What do you remember?

After the third time I stop, take the poem off the big screen and ask pupils to turn over their paper. I ask them what they remember. A word? A phrase or an image? A line or a couplet? I’ve always been surprised by how much, as a class, they can recall after only a few minutes. Celebrate that!

Call and response

Then I challenge them to do it without the poem. Oh how they laugh – and then cry!  Of course I’m joking – that’s a big step, so we break it down. I read line 1 and they repeat it; I read line 2 and they repeat it; then we see if we can do that couplet together. We work through all 6 couplets like this and then celebrate – we did it without the poem text! (Or at least they did – teacher’s prerogative is allowed to prevail in the interests of motivational success!)

Visualising the poem

Then we go a step further. I show them the structure of the poem using a slide deck of 6 pictures. First there is a picture of a beach, and this goes with the list of 4 girls’ names. Then it’s maggie’s solo stanza and there’s a picture of a shell. Then it’s milly and the starfish, molly and the ‘horrible thing’ (a crab), may and the smooth round stone, and finally it’s finding ourselves in the sea. Then we give the poem a go, me reading/reciting and them using the picture prompts to join in as much as they can. Together we do it!

Learning our lines

Then we’re ready for the final step – performance. Again, we break it down – I allocate lines to be learned by small groups. 6 groups might each learn a couplet each, or 5 groups a couplet each plus everyone learning the last one, or 4 groups learning a couplet each and everyone learning the first and last couplets. They learn their lines and if I have time I get them to rehearse a little so they synch their timing, rhythm and emphasis. Then we’re ready to go.

Class performance

If I’m racing towards the end of the lesson I simply count them in and off we go, each group reciting their part in turn; if I have a little more time we might do that and then run through the whole poem all together, or vice versa. Whatever, we finish with a big round of applause and lots of cheery celebration of their achievement.

Next steps in Poetry By Heart

Maybe from this starting point some of your pupils will go off and master this poem ready to take part in a school competition; maybe you’ll work it up some more with the whole class to enter the choral recitation competition; or maybe learning this much will help to inspire some of them to choose a different poem. Whatever happens, they will have had an experience of learning a poem by heart and performing it. And it will have been fun!

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Finding a track in the verbal landscape

2nd October 2019

Track in a verbal landscape_edited2With the return of Poetry By Heart, bigger then ever before, we’re back on the blog to continue our discussion about poetry in all its myriad aspects. We’ll be talking about poetry, teaching and what’s going on in the world of poetry, but one of our main aims is to share thoughts and ideas for anyone interested in memorising and reciting poems.

We have some NEW blog team members for 2019-20. We’ll introduce them one at a time over the next few weeks. First up is David Whitley, Fellow of Homerton College Cambridge, formerly of the Faculty of Education, an expert on poetry and memory and a Poetry By Heart judge. To kick us off, here he is with a few questions and topics he’ll be exploring on the blog in coming months.

Starting with the whole terrain, what happens when you memorise and perform a poem? How does your relationship with the poem change during the process of learning it and trying out different ways of speaking it? Do you come to understand the poem in a different way to what would have happened if you’d just read, studied or analysed it? Is the poem in some sense ‘alive’ when taken into your self in this way? Does it ever seem to speak to you – or indeed speak you – rather than you speaking it? Does it forge new connections to other experiences you have had and get you to see these from a slightly different perspective? And when it comes to performing the poem for an audience of other people, what are we striving for in that act of giving voice to the words on a page from memory? What do we mean by a ‘good’ performance? And how may this differ from performing lines from a play, for instance?

The list could go on, of course, and we’ll be pursuing aspects of these questions in more depth in subsequent blogs. Another area that especially interests us is how the ‘voice’ of the poem – with all its distinctive cultural and historical resonances, and affiliations – merges with the voice of the speaker. Poems – like stories – have the ability to connect people across time and space, of course. But they also tend to retain something inherent to the culture, time, place and writer who composed them. When we choose a poem to memorise we are drawn towards something in it. It might be the sound quality rather than the sense, or something that seems to appeal in a quite arbitrary way, initially. But as we learn the poem, our relationship inevitably deepens as we take the specific textures of its language and form inside ourselves.

When we try to speak it from memory then, our individual voice has found a track of feeling and expression in the verbal landscape of the person who wrote the poem. In a sense, our individual voice is forging a particular kind of connection to a collective voice, whose rhythms and bearings the poem must draw on if it is to be successful. This is a difficult – sometimes subtle but potentially compelling territory to explore, then. In memorising a poem, how is an individual’s voice oriented towards the collective voice that the poem embodies?

You can read more about David’s research on poetry and memory here.

We welcome questions that you find intriguing and hope to provoke a range of responses and exchanges along the way. Join the conversation over on Twitter @poetrybyheart or email us a question via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.

 

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