Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Reciting Poetry

Recently I attended a presentation where a young woman spoke about poetry and the concept of finding your own rhythm by reading and modelling other people’s poetry as a starting point to writing your own. Mention was made of the past practice of making children learn poetry ‘off by heart’, and how this may go some way to explaining why a lot of people groan at the mention of poetry today.
I’ve since been wondering if this is true.
Oh I know it’s something we often made jokes about, the forced recitations of My Country by Dorothea Mackellar for instance, which had to be spoken with feeling, and sometimes hand gestures to boot. So the first two lines became:
I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeeeping plains...’ – arms widened to the front as in swimming breastroke.
Being curious about the whole subject of reciting poetry I did a small email survey of 10 random people to explore some attitudes. I doubt if the methodology would stand up to scrutiny but here’s a few outcomes. Most (7/10) had learned some poetry by heart (what does that phrase mean??) at school, most (7/10) said it was a positive experience and didn’t turn them off poetry at all. 8/10 said that their parents and/or grandparents used to recite poetry and many still did, including one 92 year old who still studies American poetry with the U3A. Only 2 said they could recite any poetry now and only 4 said they ever read poetry nowadays.
I was one who loved to learn poetry at school and had a mother who was a bit famous for her ability to recite poetry even into her 80’s. Her scaring the daylights out of us with her rendition of Up the Airy Mountain is an enduring memory. 
My first memory of poetry at school was learning, writing out in an exercise book and illustrating September in Australia by Henry Kendall. ('Grey winter hath gone like a wearisome guest...'). After that, all the adventure ones  - How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, Paul Revere’s Ride etc. Lawson & Banjo Paterson - featured at high school, being read to us by various much loved English teachers. And the day Mr Dean sat on a front desk and read to us ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ was probably the first time I fell in love. Luckily Mr Dean didn’t notice.
Once I asked a fellow teacher who was also a great actor, to come into my Year 10 class and read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to them. To my, and their, amazement, he recited the lot. Fabulous! And never have I seen such rapt attention. Goose bumps all round.
Brad Leithauser, writing in The New Yorker a while back said this of learning to recite poetry in an age where every poem is just a search engine away:
“The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. ....... If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
Despite this, I won’t hold my breath for verse memorization coming back into vogue any time soon, more’s the pity.
Back at my little survey, some of the poets people still love to read include: Wilfred Owens, Siegfried Sassoon, Frederic Manning, (it was near Anzac day), Carol Anne Duffy, UA Fanthorpe, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, French poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Jacques Prèvert, Spanish Poet Machado, John Donne and Judith Wright & the bird poems of CJ Dennis and Judith Wright. I’d endorse John Donne and add Tennyson and Gerard Manly Hopkins (of whose Windhover I can now only recall the first 5 lines.)


For a lovely oral version of The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (no match for Mr Dean’s) watch

And for the full script of the Brad Leithauser article, see

So maybe go learn to recite a poem, even if it is Mulga Bill's Bicycle.


  1. Neil Fuller used to say "To learn a poem by heart is to take it to your heart."

  2. This is what Brad Leithauser believes too - that "if we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”


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