Rhyme scheme

For decades, the prac­tice of pupils com­mit­ting po­etry to mem­ory has been deeply un­fash­ion­able. But Deb­bie Pullinger, cur­rently part of a Cam­bridge re­search study into the mat­ter, ar­gues that mem­o­ri­sa­tion cou­pled with anal­y­sis can bring about a fuller, mor

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL -

What mem­o­ri­sa­tion can do to im­prove un­der­stand­ing of po­etry

Can you re­cite a poem by heart? There’s no shame if you can‘t. Prac­tis­ing teach­ers are now, largely, the gen­er­a­tion that passed through school with­out learn­ing a sin­gle poem. Although mem­o­ri­sa­tion was, for cen­turies, the ac­cepted way of in­cul­cat­ing a knowl­edge of po­etry, it ceased to be a statu­tory school re­quire­ment in 1944. And so be­gan its steady de­cline: recita­tion faded out, rote learn­ing fell from favour and the em­pha­sis shifted to close read­ing and anal­y­sis of the poem on the page.

Within wider so­ci­ety, the re­cited poem took on a rather dif­fer­ent set of mean­ings. It be­came some­thing of a party piece, rolled out at wed­dings and funer­als; a cul­tural sign­post sig­ni­fy­ing a cer­tain type of ed­u­ca­tion; an ex­er­cise in re­mem­brance, keep­ing the past alive.

For many teach­ers, get­ting chil­dren to learn po­etry by heart seems like an out­dated and point­less ex­er­cise at best. The mixed re­ac­tion to the new statu­tory re­quire­ment for mem­o­ri­sa­tion and recita­tion on the pri­mary English cur­ricu­lum, and to the re­in­state­ment of closed-book English ex­ams at GCSE with the im­plied obli­ga­tion to learn at least a few lines, in­di­cates just how much has changed.

The pri­mary pro­grammes of study do not sup­ply the ra­tio­nale for get­ting chil­dren to learn po­etry, though the stated aim of en­sur­ing that all pupils “ap­pre­ci­ate our rich, lit­er­ary her­itage” is pre­sum­ably part of it. Mem­o­ri­sa­tion and recita­tion may be back on the cur­ricu­lum, but their ex­act re­la­tion­ship with the ex­ist­ing re­quire­ments for ap­pre­ci­a­tion and anal­y­sis have not been prop­erly ar­tic­u­lated.

So does learn­ing and recit­ing a poem make any dif­fer­ence to the way we en­gage with and un­der­stand it?

Con­ven­tional lit­er­ary crit­i­cism will have us pore over the poem on the page, map out its me­tre, un­ravel its rhyme scheme, in­ter­pret its im­ages and then ex­plain what the poet was try­ing to achieve. Could mov­ing it from page to mem­ory help with any of this?

Cer­tainly, there are those – lit­er­ary schol­ars among them – who be­lieve it does. In her com­men­tary on Shake­speare’s son­nets, critic He­len Vendler says that she found it es­sen­tial to learn them all by heart to ar­rive at her un­der­stand­ings. And from our work on the Cam­bridge Po­etry and Mem­ory Project, we be­lieve that mem­o­ri­sa­tion and recita­tion both have a vi­tal and dis­tinc­tive role to play in the study of po­etry.

As part of our three-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion, we con­ducted an on­line sur­vey to find out which po­ems peo­ple in the UK now know, and about their ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing them com­mit­ted to mem­ory; 500 peo­ple re­sponded. We then con­ducted more than 30 fol­low-up in-depth in­ter­views (see box, page 38).

Our sur­vey data in­di­cates that hav­ing some po­etry in our mem­ory of­fers a con­stel­la­tion of po­ten­tial ben­e­fits. It can be an emo­tional re­source and a way of mak­ing sense of life – “crys­tallis­ing the re­al­ity of things in all their com­plex­ity”, as one po­etry en­thu­si­ast put it. It can give us con­fi­dence in our own mem­o­ries and an ear for lan­guage – what Sea­mus Heaney called “bed­ding the ear with a kind of lin­guis­tic hard­core”.

But the most uni­ver­sal ef­fects seem to be re­lated to ex­pe­ri­ence of the poem it­self. Deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion and in­creased un­der­stand­ing were con­sis­tently re­garded as two of the most valu­able as­pects – com­ing first and third over­all re­spec­tively in a rank­ing ex­er­cise, ei­ther side of “it pro­vides com­fort in tough times”.

This statis­tic is sup­ported by the per­sonal ac­counts. For a few peo­ple – such as the doc­toral stu­dent who mem­o­rises the po­ems she stud­ies – crit­i­cal in­sight is the mo­ti­va­tion for learn­ing. “I never fully ap­pre­ci­ate a poem un­til I have learned it,” some­one else agreed. But cir­cum­stances and rea­sons for mem­o­ris­ing are very di­verse, in­clud­ing “ac­ci­den­tal” learn­ing – po­ems that “just went in” from be­ing read or heard a lot.

Many peo­ple be­come aware of their deep­en­ing com­pre­hen­sion over time and a poem learned in childhood may un­fold its mean­ing af­ter many years, of­ten af­ter a ma­jor change in cir­cum­stance or ex­pe­ri­ence. So, if mem­o­ri­sa­tion does have the po­ten­tial to cre­ate a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the poem, why should that be the case? How does it work?

It ap­pears sev­eral fac­tors are in play. A rel­a­tively straight­for­ward one is that we of­ten feel a stronger sense of own­er­ship of a learned poem: “It’s not ‘mine’ in any lit­eral sense, but I feel I have a ‘claim’ to it be­cause I’ve taken the trou­ble to learn it,” said one in­ter­vie­wee. And we know from psy­chol­ogy that sim­ply hav­ing in­vested time and en­ergy in some­thing means we are more likely to at­tribute sig­nif­i­cance to it.

Equally, many peo­ple learn po­ems with which they feel a strong emo­tional con­nec­tion. A poem that speaks to my state of love or loss is also likely to draw me into deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion and en­gage­ment.

But mem­o­ri­sa­tion also works in more di­rect ways and in syn­ergy with the par­tic­u­lar prop­er­ties of po­etry. Here are some of the most sig­nif­i­cant.

In­volv­ing the voice, ac­ti­vat­ing the acous­tic

The roots of po­etry are in oral cul­ture, where ap­peal to the ear and mem­ory are crit­i­cal to per­for­mance. Typ­i­cally, a poem’s struc­ture works sym­pa­thet­i­cally with the hu­man voice and mem­ory. In giv­ing voice to verse, you feel its rhythms in your body, your breath flow­ing through its lines. Shake­speare knew as much and ex­pressed it in the fi­nal cou­plet of Son­net 18 – a poem that ranked third in our sur­vey:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

In speak­ing those lines aloud, we feel the breath run­ning through the re­peated, elon­gat­ing, life-ex­tend­ing “ee” vow­els. We are mo­men­tar­ily pulled up short by the vo­cal at­ten­tion we are forced to give “lives” and “this”, which makes for a tiny in­ter­rup­tion to the smooth iambic line. We might even feel, if sub­lim­i­nally, a faint, deathly echo from a sim­i­lar halt­ing ef­fect three lines ear­lier:

Nor shall Death brag thou wan­der­est in his shade

In our lit­er­ate cul­ture, how­ever, we are used to see­ing po­ems on the page. The con­tours of the print re­flect as­pects of the poem’s form, and these guide our men­tal nav­i­ga­tion (even when recit­ing from mem­ory, for some). But words on the page have a cer­tain ho­mo­gene­ity that flat­tens out their rhythms and masks their vo­cal dy­nam­ics. Para­dox­i­cally, text lacks tex­ture.

We know, more­over, that vis­ual stim­uli tend to trump au­di­tory ones. This means that though printed words are a nec­es­sary cue to per­for­mance, they also act as a kind of in­ter­fer­ence. That’s one rea­son why hear­ing a poem with­out sight of the text can be a rev­e­la­tion. Our mind is free to at­tend to tasks other than de­cod­ing and our mind’s eye is free to roam. Putting the book down is per­haps like tak­ing the sta­bilis­ers off the bike. You may be a bit wob­bly at first, but only then can you re­ally feel the way the bike is mov­ing over the sur­face; only then can you find your bal­ance.

Mem­o­rable speech

When we “read” the poem from mem­ory, the layer of cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing re­quired for de­cod­ing print is lifted away. We still have to re­trieve and re­con­struct the poem, but the hooks by which we haul those out of mem­ory are po­etic de­vices. Stanza and line, me­tre and rhyme – all are sym­pa­thetic to the func­tions and con­straints of both work­ing and longterm mem­ory. This is not to de­tract from

their in­te­gral role in the sense and artistry of the poem. But since re­mem­ber­ing re­quires close at­ten­tion to shapes and sounds, it also ac­ti­vates the very qual­i­ties that make po­etry, as Au­den put it, “mem­o­rable speech”. In Shake­speare’s cou­plet, the rep­e­ti­tion of “So long”, the con­so­nance of its key words and the close prox­im­ity of its end rhymes all make the sense echo through the sound, just as they make the move from the first to the sec­ond line an easy one.

The in­ner room

Once a poem has been taken off the page and into the mind and body, there is of­ten a shift in the way it is ex­pe­ri­enced. Some peo­ple ar­tic­u­late this as feel­ing as if they are on the in­side of the poem. The mem­o­rised stanza (Ital­ian for “room”) be­comes like a room or land­scape that they are free to wan­der around and ex­plore. “I know the poem so well that I don’t have to think about it, and then I can sort of play around in­side it, and dif­fer­ent shades and mean­ings come to you,” said one par­tic­i­pant.

In­hab­it­ing the poem, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the poem as an in­ter­nal space, we be­come more aware both of the struc­ture as a whole and of the con­structed path­way that pulls us along. “It’s as if it were a land­scape that I had to nav­i­gate with my eyes closed, learn­ing where the dips and climbs were and what out­crops to avoid,” said an­other.

This trans­for­ma­tion seems to be­come pos­si­ble only once the poem is in our mem­ory – per­haps be­cause the whole and its parts are si­mul­ta­ne­ously present to us, and be­cause the sen­sory qual­i­ties, as well as the im­agery and other as­so­ci­a­tions, have be­come more im­me­di­ate.

The re­wards of the jour­ney

It is not only the firm pos­ses­sion of a com­plete poem that has this po­ten­tial; the process of ac­qui­si­tion can be sim­i­larly re­ward­ing. There are var­i­ous ways to mem­o­rise a poem, in­clud­ing “rote learn­ing”, a term used to de­note a rather mech­a­nis­tic, su­per­fi­cial process that at­tends to the form, but not so much to the mean­ing. Some peo­ple find that po­ems learned by rote do un­fold their mean­ing later – per­haps much later. But our re­search in­di­cates that this ap­proach is less likely to pro­duce a last­ing re­la­tion­ship with the poem. It is very much a means to an end and isn’t par­tic­u­larly re­ward­ing in it­self.

More pro­duc­tive for both re­sult and re­ward is a heuris­tic ap­proach, in which the learn­ing is a process of dis­cov­ery. This deep, or­ganic learn­ing is char­ac­terised by a full en­gage­ment with a poem’s sen­sory qual­i­ties: its sounds, its feel in the mouth. We be­come aware of the poem’s ef­fects on our body and our emo­tion. And rather than us­ing mem­ory “tech­niques”,

we might dis­cover the poem’s own in­built mnemon­ics. Cru­cially, there is pa­tient, deep at­ten­tion to the poem it­self; the ob­jec­tive is ap­pre­ci­a­tion rather than mem­o­ri­sa­tion. Para­dox­i­cally, the mem­o­ri­sa­tion prob­a­bly hap­pens faster and with less ef­fort.

This ap­proach is more of a dis­po­si­tion than a method. It’s a space in which ev­ery­thing – even for­get­ting – be­comes in­struc­tive. Vendler says that the parts of the son­nets she for­got were of­ten those that, once re­trieved, re­vealed some­thing sig­nif­i­cant: “Those gaps made me re­alise that some pieces of the whole must not yet have been in­te­grated into my un­der­stand­ing of the in­tent of the work… Re­cov­ery of the miss­ing pieces brought with it a fur­ther un­der­stand­ing of the de­sign of that son­net.”

Recita­tion as in­ter­pre­ta­tion

If the mem­o­ri­sa­tion re­quired by the pri­mary cur­ricu­lum is un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory for some, recita­tion is prob­a­bly more so. But the idea that recita­tion could be a valid form of lit­er­ary in­ter­pre­ta­tion is one that had con­sid­er­able cur­rency within the vers­es­peak­ing move­ment in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury. Don Geiger, one of its pro­po­nents in the US, ob­served “it would be merely silly to think of the oral in­ter­preter as the ideal reader who un­der­stands ev­ery­thing. Nor should we think that the oral in­ter­preter can su­per­sede the tex­tual critic…but we may no­tice that in re­pro­duc­ing ef­fects of the text it­self, the oral in­ter­preter ap­proaches the lit­er­ary work even more closely than the tex­tual critic.”

Even if a poem is never re­cited for­mally, giv­ing our own voice and body to the lines draws us more fully into the mean­ing­mak­ing. “You can­not re­cite a poem with­out giv­ing some­thing of your­self to the ut­ter­ance,” said one in­ter­vie­wee. “It is im­por­tant to re­cite the lines aloud…and to em­pha­sise them in dif­fer­ent ways in or­der to ex­plore sounds and mean­ings.” We may even find that our voice has made its own re­sponse to a line: an un­ex­pected in­flec­tion, a change of rhythm, an al­tered tone that of­fers up a fresh in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Pos­si­bil­i­ties of mean­ing are opened up by per­for­mance dy­nam­ics and these in turn seem to be fur­ther ac­ti­vated by a sense of au­di­ence. “Recit­ing po­etry,” an­other par­tic­i­pant said, “is an ex­cit­ing thing. There is di­rect con­tact be­tween you and the lis­tener.”

An ori­en­ta­tion to­wards shar­ing, even with an imag­ined au­di­ence, seems to bring the re­la­tion­ship be­tween sound and sense au­to­mat­i­cally into sharper fo­cus.

The case for learn­ing po­ems as a source of con­so­la­tion, cul­tural en­rich­ment and even con­fi­dence is be­ing well made. The case for its po­ten­tial in pedagogy has barely been opened. And nei­ther as­pect has re­ally been re­searched. In­deed, there has been hardly any in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cog­ni­tive and psy­cho­log­i­cal dy­nam­ics of po­etry ex­pe­ri­ence, as com­pared with mu­sic, for ex­am­ple.

Our own project is only a small start, but the ev­i­dence from it points strongly to­wards mem­o­rised po­etry be­ing a re­source with the po­ten­tial to en­rich peo­ple’s lives in many ways, both emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual, over many years. It ap­pears, more­over, that mem­o­ri­sa­tion, recita­tion, ap­pre­ci­a­tion and anal­y­sis are in fact all as­pects of the same ex­pe­ri­ence, with each hav­ing the po­ten­tial to en­hance all the oth­ers. And if this is the case, mem­o­ri­sa­tion and recita­tion should not be re­garded as a sideshow, but cen­tral to the teach­ing of po­etry. Dr Deb­bie Pullinger is ju­nior re­search fel­low at Wolf­son Col­lege, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge. Read more in­for­ma­tion about the project at po­et­ryand­mem­ory.com

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