9th December 2019
Between 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.