A Poem in the Head
Lockdown has been an unlooked-for boost for poetry. Under pressure, creative juices have leaked out and poems have sprouted in every spare bit of ground. At the same time, appetites have grown, and some – like my friend who’s learning a load of Larkin – have even turned to memorising.
If lockdown poems have poured out of you, then you’ve something to show for it all. But what if you have simply coaxed them off the page and into your head? What’s to show for that? And why not simply enjoy reading them, rather than going to the bother of learning?
These were precisely the kinds of questions with which we began our Poetry and Memory project at the University of Cambridge. We were interested in the value of the memorised poem, and how knowing poems by heart affects appreciation and understanding. Our findings point to a constellation of potential benefits – for anyone, at any age. You can read more about the project here. But to highlight just three, a poem in the heart …
- becomes a valuable emotional resource, often growing and changing with us.
- creates a sense of ownership – and for children, that can provide a vital sense of mastery as well as being a staging post to other poems.
- open us to possibility – like Becky Fisher’s mum, you never know where, or who, it might lead to…
Lines in the head also help with the lines that come out. We know that for so many of our great poets, a store of memorised poetry was instrumental in their achievement – what Seamus Heaney called “bedding the ear with a kind of linguistic hardcore”. When poetry learning was reinstated on the primary curriculum in 2012, it was not universally welcomed. Even so, it does build an instinctual awareness of how poetic language works. It’s great to hear on this blog about the inspiring work poets are doing in schools – and to read some of the poems which come out of that. And as these young writers begin to find their voice, they will be tuning into those tracks of language laid down in the brain.
Ok, but surely children shouldn’t be required to learn or recite? An interesting question I’m often asked.
In our research, we asked about when, how and why poems were learned. Some people reported dreadful experiences of enforced learning that put them off for life. And yet… others made to learn and recite under duress were really glad they did and now love their poem. Countless others, though, said they learned their poem ‘accidentally’, just through hearing it again and again.
And that’s the thing – children really don’t need forcing. As any parent whose child joins in with a Julia Donaldson book knows, they do it as naturally as they learn language. And as many a teacher knows, there are lots of ways to make learning enjoyable. For a few ideas, my Poetry Archive Teaching Resource draws on findings from the project.
Once learned, poems can be explored through performance. The act of sharing a poem in this way seems to bring the relationship between sounds and sense into sharper focus, while new shades of meaning can be opened up in the moment. Again, ideas for performance are here.
But what if, like me, you’re of the generation who never learned poetry in school? Well, some of my most fascinating interviews were with people who told me about starting to learn poems later in life – as an absorbing hobby, as a bulwark against dementia or, perhaps – most significantly for these times – as therapy for depression or solace for dark days. It’s never too early, never too late.
Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher based at the University of Cambridge. Having published a volume on children’s poetry – From Tongue to Text (Bloomsbury, 2017) – she is currently working on a book about the memorised poem. www.debbiepullinger.com @debpullinger