Category Archives: Poetry
Can you recite a poem without any notes or prompts?
When was the last time you learned a poem by heart?
For me the answers are:
- No. I know the starts of many poems and snatches of many others but if I were ever called upon to deliver one in public, I’d be a complete failure
- I suspect many people will say that they haven’t learned a poem since they were in school (and I don’t mean college; I mean the kind of school you attended before you were 18). My last experience is rather more recent than that but is still a good 10 years back. I was taking an Open University module which included poetry and needed to go into the exam confident I could quote from a good range of poems. So I pushed myself to learn large sections of about six poems.
I’ve since forgotten most of what I learned then.
Poetry, it has to be said, does not figure much in my life. I have some collections at home but can’t remember the last time I took one off the shelf let alone opened the book.
But then alone came National Poetry Day in the UK which resulted in a number of articles and broadcasts about poetry.
One was a feature article about a man called Gary Dexter who walks up to complete strangers in the street or the pub, asks them to name their favourite poem, and then offers to recite it in exchange for a small fee.
He started off with a repertoire of 30 poems (which took him a month to learn) but has now doubled this. He finds that the same requests crop up over and over again. Top of the list is Rudyard Kipling’s If, followed by This be the Verse by Philip Larkin and Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.
Then there was a broadcast on Radio 4 One in which Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, disclosed she runs through poems to help her sleep. Pretty impressive since she learned these poems at school and she is now 71 years old. She’s backing a call for the public to learn poetry by heart to stave off “senior moments”. Judi Dench is also on board (astoundingly she can recite the whole of Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream without notes!).
So I got to thinking that learning some poems by heart could be a) a good way to help keep my brain working and thus mitigate the potential of dementia and b) a means to encourage me to read more poetry.
I’m not setting myself a target for how many I try to learn or over what period. That would be one way to guarantee I lose interest.
But I’m going to attempt one a month. I don’t just want to learn the poem so I can recite it back; I’d like to be able to discuss its potential meaning and where it fits into the canon of that poet’s work.
But where to begin?
I could just start with the “nation’s favourite poems”, a list of the 30 most requested pieces as documented by Gary Dexter. There are some predictable choices in there – Daffodils by William Wordsworth and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas.
But I think I’d rather start with poems of which I already know some lines. It’s a wayof easing into the practice.
October is therefore the month that I tackle William Wordsworth. Not Daffodils or any of his Lucy poems but the sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
I chose this because it relates to one of my favourite parts of London and unusually for Wordsworth, who was not a great lover of the city, this sonnet shows that he finds beauty in a man-made scene. The rhyme scheme also helps with recalling the lines (yes I wanted an easy option to get me started…)
Can a poem help you get through a stressful time ? Would reading Jane Austen give you an insight into ways of dealing with grief? Those are some of the questions posed in a fascinating course I just read about today.
It’s apparently the world’s first free online course in “Literature and Mental Health” and explores how enjoying literature can help us to endure life. It’s offered by Future Learn in conjunction with ReLit, a charitable enterprise in the UK to research and practice something called bibliotherapy. I’d never heard of this but apparently it is an ancient art of book-healing.
This week sees the publication by ReLit of Stressed, Unstressed, an anthology of 150 poems to “ease the mind”, edited by Paula Byrne, a biographer whose works include a study of Jane Austen. The collection, which then spawned the course, originated when Paula’s young daughter was critically ill and not expected to live. Byrne turned to poetry to help her through the traumatic experience.
The book is being used with prison inmates serving sentences for serious assault. In future copies will be donated to hospitals, schools and medical centres.
The Literature and Mental Health course asks how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain. It’s delivered in conjunction with Warwick University.
Enrolment is open now for the start date of February 1. Anyone care to join me???
Your choice of reading for health
Some leading actors and literary figures nominated poems that have played a significant part in their lives – Ian McKellen and Melvyn Bragg both chose Wordsworth while Stephen Fry opted for that other big Romantic, John Keats.
Bragg’s choice was Michael, a poem about a shepherd and his son
McKellen selected Composed upon Westminster Bridge
Fry went for Ode to a Nightingale
I’ve been thinking what my own suggestions would be. Of course it depends on the circumstances but one I’ve gone back to many times when I felt vulnerable is W. B Yeats, The Cloths of Heaven.
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Any suggestions from you?
The Classics Cub question last month asked us to name a favourite classic poem. I got my list down to three poems fairly quickly but then procrastination set in so I actually missed the deadline. I don’t think anyone is going to chastise me too much however.
My shortlisted three were all poems penned by one of the big six Romantic poets.
The Chimney Sweep by William Blake. As with much of Blake’s work in Songs of Innocence and Experience, there is a serious message underneath the apparent simplicity of the form. It starts as if the young chimney sweep is giving evidence in a court of law and ends with a message which seems to be directed at us the jurors, alerting us to the way we can be complicit in the kinds of social injustice about which the boy talks.
Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley. No-one could label this poem,with its intricate terza rima rhyme scheme of being ‘simple’. It’s a meditation on the natural world but Shelley does more than just dwell on its beauty, he invokes as a power to help rekindle his creative abilities. Reading this you also get a sense of how these Romantics saw themselves as the means to effect change in their society. Shelley doesn’t want his ideas to die with him, but to inspire and influence others.
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearthAshes and sparks, my words among mankind!Be through my lips to unawaken’d earthThe trumpet of a prophecy!
It’s a powerful poem but my ultimate choice of a favourite is Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth.
Having been to the ruins of the Abbey many times and also walked up to the spot on the cliff face where Wordsworth sat when looking down onto to the abbey, as I read the poem I can picture the scene he saw more than 200 years ago. I like to think of him there in quiet solitude contemplating the view in front of him and reflecting on how much influence his love of nature has had on him throughout his life.
While with an eye made quiet by the powerOf harmony, and the deep power of joy,We see into the life of things.
It’s a love that changed over time, from the heady pleasures of his youth to a deeper appreciation of nature’s power to nurture him through dark moments in his life. His more mature self feels a sense of the sublimity of nature, of “something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”
This isn’t a poem whose meaning is instantly apparent; you have to read it several times but it does reward re-reading and re-reading.