Poetry by Heart

For the final entry in this year’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) series, we have a special piece by Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, on what changed her mind about the merits of poetry recitation.

Poetry By Heart
by Catherine Robson

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoLast month, the third annual final “Poetry By Heart”, a national recitation competition for British 14-18 year olds, was staged in Homerton College, Cambridge. Sitting there as one of the judges in the packed auditorium, I witnessed a series of magical transformations. Time and again, slightly awkward or diffident young people walked onto the stage, paused, and then became entirely different individuals altogether. When they started to speak the words they had committed to heart, they took possession not just of themselves and their poems, but of every other person in the room. I found it an exceptionally moving experience.Heart Beats

If you had told me ten years ago that I would volunteer to work on such a competition, I would have been very surprised. Back then, when I first began work on a book about the strange phenomenon of the memorized poem, I held few positive feelings about recitation. I knew that reciting poetry used to hold a privileged place in the elementary curricular programs of the past, but I didn’t know why or when the practice became mainstream, nor why and when we all stopped doing it. But I was sure that I was not a fan. Enforcing poetry on (or into) the unwilling brains and bodies of the young seemed to me a questionable activity at best. What happened, then, to change my mind?

For one thing, I discovered in the course of my researches that my negative opinion was entirely typical for one of my age and nationality. Born in Britain in 1962, I attended state primary and secondary schools that had no time for what was then regarded as an outmoded pedagogical endeavor, an endeavor likely to turn individuals against poetry for life. Today this is not the prevailing attitude in all quarters – for one thing, the British government, in addition to funding “Poetry By Heart,” now makes “reciting” a specified activity for the youngest children in state education – but the concept of compulsory mass recitation continues to make many of my countrymen uncomfortable. The idea of the memorized poem in Britain summons up thoughts of both a discredited instructional practice and a discredited educational formation – which is to say, learning by rote, and the Victorian elementary school, the institution which supposedly backed up that rote-learning with liberal applications of the rod.

Because I have now lived in the United States for over a quarter of a century, I know that Americans, by and large, are much more positive about poetry recitation. If the topic comes up in casual conversation or the media, it tends to generates not just polite interest, but passionate engagement. I’ve lost count of the number of times an octogenarian has launched into a performance of “Thanatopsis” or a bit of Longfellow for me, and I’ve heard individuals of a range of ages and from both sides of the political spectrum turn wistful, lamenting the passing of a time when all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge.

Digging into the rich and at times complicated story of the memorized poem’s progress in two sharply distinct public education systems has helped me to understand why it is that Britons and Americans today feel so differently about this pedagogical practice: the book I’ve written devotes its first half to this history, and its second to the recitational fortunes of three short poems that were once school classics on two sides of the Atlantic. Coming to terms with my own dismissive attitude towards the repetition of poetry has been another kind of project altogether.

It took me some time, but today I can draw a line between bad recitation and good.  I still think it’s important to notice that dismal experiences with poetry afflicted the lives of many children in less-than-ideal pedagogical environments in the past, but I no longer believe that this fact negates the value of the practice.  I now feel that in the right circumstances, and for certain kinds of people, the memorized poem carries an enormous potential charge.  Last month in Cambridge, its power took hold of us all.