The government wants children to memorise poetry at school. Our writer joins in by committing a few verses to memory. But it's not easy
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My literary memory is not good. One thing I do remember is that in my O-level English literature exam, I confused Elliot minor (in Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy) with Binns minor (a character from a Jennings book). Somehow I still passed. So when challenged to memorise a poem in an afternoon, I am not optimistic.
The challenge was prompted by a government initiative to get children to memorise poems called Poetry By Heart. No doubt the hand of Michael Gove is in there somewhere. The Department for Education has set up a website suggesting 130 poems, ancient and modern, for memorisation, and reciting contests are planned. Simon Cowell is probably already planning the TV show.
I settle on trying to memorise William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, reasoning that its emphatic rhymes will help the learning process. Before I embark I do a quick scan of online guides to learning poetry by heart. Some suggest turning words into images, or imagining the poem as a journey. One popular technique is to attach parts of the poem to items of furniture in your house. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Most of the guides are American. I decide just to think of it as a sequence of words.
But then a brilliant idea strikes me. Why not type out the poem myself; pretend I am writing it; and not move on to the next bit until it has been memorised? My journey has begun. After 20 minutes I have the first eight lines locked down. The catch is that when I try to memorise the next four, it makes me forget the first part. The problems of memorisation are exponential. Do not attempt Paradise Lost! I now realise why I never became an actor.
After an hour I can summon up the first 12 lines. The rhythmic nature of the poem is helpful. I am increasingly pleased I chose Blake, rather than, say, Robert Lowell or John Berryman. Modern discursive poems must be a nightmare. To recite, I find I have to stand up and stride about the room, as if I were making a call on a mobile phone. It's all about keeping your focus – thinking of nothing but the poem. I have to think so hard, it hurts.
After two hours I have 20 lines memorised – half the poem on the Poetry By Heart website. Then, checking the text in The Penguin Book of English Verse, I make a shattering/delightful discovery. The 40 lines on the website are less than a third of the whole poem. Gove, what the hell's going on? Either we're going to do this properly, or we're not. Let's not give kids the soft option. The discovery is shattering because I now face having to learn 132 lines of poetry. Conversely it's delightful because, given the arbitrary nature of the cut-off, I could draw the line at 20. Naturally I will do the former, but first let me have a cup of tea. This is going to take a while.