My challenge with 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…)





What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

35 thoughts on “My challenge with poetry

  • I’m. It certain that I could quote the whole of Twelfth Night without notes, butive seen it that often that I am certainly aware in the theatre when someone goes wrong, or a few lines have been cut out. The same goes for As You Like It.

    • I’m impressed. I can see how someone can recall the major speeches but it’s all the dialogue in between that must be hard to recall

  • Judy Krueger

    Kudos! I have not reached this point with poetry. I might never do so. Memorization is not my forte. But I have enjoyed reading a poem a day for a couple years now. I read one before bed. It is amazingly calming.

    • How do you choose the poem to read Judy – do you just pick from a collection at random or do you a have a favourite poet?

  • I’m super picky with poetry, especially in English. I often find poems written in English to be too long. I like short verses, especially about nature.
    I have no problem with long verses if they rhyme – like old poetry.
    My favorite poet ever is actually in Spanish; Pablo Neruda
    My favorite French poet is René Guy Cadou. I used to have all his works in 1 volume back in France. Unfortunately, he’s basically unknown out of France

    • My knowledge of poets is sadly very limited – the product of a very traditional English education – so I don’t know even Cadou sorry

  • Not since being forced to learn a poem by heart at school definitely. However, one of my favourite books is an prose poem, Paul Durcan’s Christmas Day, though some might disagree as to whether it is poetry.
    I do enjoy prose poetry, authors like Margarita Engle and her The Wild Book and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.
    More serious poetry for me is a little like looking at artworks, it takes much viewing before I find something that resonates or moves me and generally I find those works are unique to me and not necessarily universally admired.

    • Poetry is indeed a very individual experience – maybe even more so than prose?

  • What a good idea! I remember an old lady in my church group saying that she’d learned all the Psalms as a child, and still knew them, and I thought what a joy and inspiration that would be. I started with one short one, forgot it all by the next day, and stopped… but I should try again one day. A shame the malleable childhood brain lasts so short a time!

    • I find you have to go over it each day in order for it to sink in…

  • Yes, I can quote at least one that I regularly recite to myself because, for some reason, I love it. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and fall. I do enjoy poetry, though don’t read a lot, so I remember many lines/verses from Hopkins, TS Eliot, Banjo Paterson (Aussie ballad-writer), Shakespeare, and others.

    But I’ll share a link for one that my sister used to recite with much verve to the family when she was a child (not an adult so not really relevant to your post I know). I share it because it’s a fun poem with a last line that I still regularly quote: https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/paterson-a-b-banjo/high-explosive-0023002

    • I can imagine the relish with which she recited that – perfect for . a child because of the metre and rhyme

      • Exactly- and she had the childish inability to say “r”. I’ll never forget her expression of confidence as she’d say the dingo pup’s line ”And you’d be sur-pwized at the things I know”

  • Like you I have a number of snippets of poems under my belt. Every autumn I manage to get a ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ and when I’m feeling harried and hurried I usually throw out ‘and miles and miles to go before I sleep’. It makes me feel close to my Pop. He grew up in the early 1900’s and rote learnt numerous poems and odes that he could still recite just weeks before he died at 84.

    • I can remember about 4 lines from To Autumn – which is about par for my recollection of any poem. I’ve almost got the Wordsworth one under my belt ….but will I remember it when I’m 84???

  • I’m much the same as you – I also took an OU course that included a poetry section and learned several poems, since forgotten. I did learn On Westminster Bridge when I was 12 – I know that because I still have my handwritten copy of it I made at the time – between boards I decorated very badly! Not that I can remember it all now.

    I think it’s a good idea to exercise the brain by learning poems, so I’m going to do the same, beginning this month with Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, a poem that I have tried to learn before.

    • I think we might have taken the same course – mine had the Romantic poets as a section so I spent ages trying to get to grips with Above Tintern Abbey. Good luck with Frost ….

      • I took several OU courses – the one with the most poetry content was Literature in the Modern World – so no Wordsworth, but poets such as Seamus Heaney, W B Yeats, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bishop & Ted Hughes. It was a while ago and I think they no longer run that course. I did enjoy it!

        • that was very different to the ones I took – I did 19th century novel and also a level 2 course which had auseten, dickens, shakespeare and a bunch of other stuff I can’t even recall now

  • Kaggsysbookishramblings

    Good luck! I have a memory like a sieve so I probably won’t be able to pitch in here. But maybe I should try….

    • All those Russian poets . you must have one floating about in your brain somewhere

  • An interesting idea. I, too, have quite a number of poetry books on my shelves – and like you have not opened them for quite a while. You have reminded me to read my poetry books – maybe I will tackle one a month? I’m not up for memorising a poem a month – if I don’t write everything down these days, then I’m sunk.

    • reading one a week or one a month would be a good goal….

  • Nooooooooo! Not ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’! You had me on board until then, but if I had a pound for every time my Mother has recited that poem (and once she has embarked upon it there’s no stopping her until all meaning has been wrung from the very last line) I’d be a very rich woman. Whether we were going into central London, going through it, or even the briefest mention of Westminster (or bridges for that matter) would be enough to set her off. I love the idea, but I’ll be giving that particular poem a very wide berth!

    • Sorry to have stirred up unwelcome associations Sarah. I’ll try and find something less well known next month….

  • Good for you, Karen. I definitely haven’t learned a poem since I was in school and now only recall snatches.

    • Those snatches I remember frustrate me because I feel I should know the whole thing

      • I’ll pass I’m afraid, I have difficulty remembering my name these days 😂 but I’ll be rooting for you.

  • I can recite ‘When You Are Old and Grey’ by Yeats; ‘When All the Others Were Away at Mass’ by Heaney and ‘I Say, I Say, I Say’ by Simon Armitage. I was at a Yeats event in Sligo recently and was AMAZED by how many people could recite poems at the drop of a hat.

    • Oh boy, I think I would have ended up feeling very inadequate after hearing those people.

  • I know snippets of certain poems, most learnt in school, but poetry is one of those things I have never got any enjoyment from, so have never taken the time to learn a whole poem.

    One poem I can quote, with more than a little help, is Auden’s “stop all the clocks”, which was recited so wonderfully by John Hannah in “4 weddings and a funeral”. Perhaps we need an emotional connection to a poem before we choose to learn it?

    • Thats an interesting thought Nordie. Maybe any kind of connection is needed otherwise you have as much interest as reading say a menu card….


We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.