Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Remember anything?

Another Ted Hughes book that was lying around our house partly forgotten is the anthology 'By Heart – 101 Poems to remember (edited and with an introduction by Ted Hughes)' (faber and faber, 1997). I can't remember when I bought this or why exactly...or even if it was me who bought it...and, oh dear, none of this is boding well for a post that involves using the memory is it?



The cover above must be a reprint...mine doesn't look quite like this (more black). Still, it's an interesting little book 'By Heart' and it contains lots of Shakespeare as well as poems by Auden, Blake, Dickinson, Frost, Heaney, Kipling, Plath, Yeats...pretty much what you might call classics (in English) or what the newspapers might call the big-hitters of the English speaking poetry world (what a phrase...I just put it in to be contrary I think). The only piece I already know by heart from it is the “To be or not to be...” soliloquy from 'Hamlet' (because I loved and learned that voluntarily at school) but there are plenty of others that I recognise or know bits of (there are tygers and roads less traveled and Miss J. Hunter Dunns...) . As much as anything the introduction from Hughes (entitled 'Memorising Poems') is well worth a look. He starts off:

“There are many reasons for learning poems. But memorising them should be like a game. It should be a pleasure.”

Now I've always been at least a good part hedonist (who isn't...?) so I think we should have ourselves some pleasure. Fanfare, please! I think we should all learn us a poem by heart this week. Come join me!

What's that noise? Can I hear some of you blog-groaning? Can I hear some of you saying “I already know plenty of poems I learned in school” or “I'm really busy this week”? The thing is I'm not talking about poems you already know...I'm talking about learning something new. Now. This week. By Monday. It can be a poem by one of your favourite poets or one by someone you've never read before or even one by someone whose writing you don't really like (it is National Contrariness Week here...have you noticed? In fact I think that last option might be the most challenging...). But whatever, I think we should all have a go...don't you? If you do join in – let me know, please....maybe even record it and get it online somehow? I'd love to hear some more of your voices.

You could, of course, learn one of your own poems as well/instead (if you write poems, obviously). Maybe some of you already know all your own work off by heart...and well done, you, if you do. I tried learning my own poems by heart and reciting in public that way but I just didn't feel it was working (and my Mark said 'you just look like you're trying to remember the words all the time'...and I was). I think the remembering effort spoilt my performance if anything...and performance is probably one of my stronger areas in poetry so it seemed a daft way to go all in all. The problems? I fear my memory suffered a bit from all those years of what the Beastie Boys might call hard partying plus learning poetry by heart was certainly not on the curriculum at any of my schools so it doesn't come naturally or anything (just count those excuses piling up!). As well as that I think I also quite like the prop of a book when I'm out in front of a crowd (huge numbers at the full-house folk club last night for example) so I stick with it for now as it seems to be what works for me. The more relaxed I am the better the reading quite often, I think. Obviously the more I read out and about the more I start to know some of the poems without ever having to make a conscious effort to learn them (and that's great). I also think that having a book makes me less reliant on a set list of any kind. If I just change my mind and want to read such-and-such a poem all I have to do is look it up (as well as a copy of 'More about the song' I always have an old Amnesty International notebook with lots of poems cut and pasted into it with me...it has everything I've read anywhere up to now). One thing I am slightly aware of is that reading from a book may not help with...classification of me as a poet. Some of my poems are certainly what others would call 'performance' and yet 'performance poets' tend to recite by heart don't they (and often in that same sing-song pattern that I certainly don't use)? Still, a little confusion never hurt anybody and who wants to fit into someone else's set idea of what you should do and who you are? Where's the creative endeavour in that? Or is that just another excuse? Hmm...

Speaking of sing-song I have much less trouble learning song lyrics by the way. I know heaps of songs by heart (or more or less) and when Verona and I sing songs in public I don't have much trouble remembering them. The blessing that is a tune...plus we practise...

The Hughes introduction offers us all a few helpful tips regarding learning poems by heart. He suggests we ditch learning by rote (“for most people the least effective” way of learning) and start with connecting the words to visual images (film or cartoons in the “playful imagination”) and then moving on to “another kind of imagination” - the “musical or audial memory”. He has some lovely examples of how sound patterns attract us (including his own entry for a slogan competition for Heinz beans...he didn't win...). And apparently, in England at least, it's the seventeenth century Puritan/Protestant ascendancy to blame for the foolish god of rote learning. They wanted to “eradicate imagery from all aspects of life”, says Ted...and he has that convincing way about him.

Anyway...on with the job...pick a poem and let's get cracking. I opened the 'By Heart' anthology and was going to pick 'The Fall of Rome' by W.H.Auden. It mentioned flu which seemed...interesting and I like bits of Auden. But then I read it a couple of times through and changed my mind and decided to try a poet I've never liked much before. So this week, friends, I will be learning the poem that Hughes uses in his introduction as an example – 'Inversnaid' by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Pick your poem and see you on the other side.

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25 comments:

Elizabeth M Rimmer said...

Ok, I'm up for it!

Rachel Fox said...

Hello Elizabeth!
What are you going to learn?
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Susan said...

Wow, what a great one. I used to remember big long poems; I loved those best, by Longfellow and Coleridge. I'll have to think about which one for this week and get back to you! But it will be something old and dramatic I think, for old time's sake.

Rachel Fox said...

An expert I see! I really hope some of you record your recitals too.
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deemikay said...

Oooh... there's an idea! I'll go for something old and something William Blake-ish. And I've chosen one... now I have to learn it. :)

But it's a long one - 56 lines. :(

Rachel Fox said...

I thought you'd come to play, D. I think it's going to be a lot of fun...I may pack a picnic!
And size isn't everything you know.
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Danish dog said...

Funny you chose "Inversnaid". Out of all the poems that I had to recite by heart at school, that's the only poem I can still remember.

Rachel Fox said...

Let's hope it sticks that well with me!

I've never quite got his appeal before so I'm hoping this project will give me some insight...
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Sorlil said...

I'm thinking WCW's The Red Wheelbarrow, lol

hope said...

I'm convinced if they could've put Math to music, I would be better with numbers. :)

Hmmm, off to look for something I once read and liked...memorizing it might be fun.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, Sorlil..I didn't make any rules about length so I can't say no! You might get finished before the rest of us though...

And Hope...PLEASE will you record yours when you've learned it. I'd love to hear your accent/voice.

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hope said...

If I can figure out how [technology and I are akin to me and math] I will do my best. :)

The Solitary Walker said...

More synchronicity! Just did a post last night which touched on learning poems off by heart - and I've only just read your own piece this minute. How strange is that? But perhaps not so odd in blogworld, I think.

Rachel Fox said...

You must have one techno-friendly person in the family circle Hope. That nephew...how old is he? Ready for tech duties?

And SW. yes I read your post last night and wondered when you would bring your memory talents over here! I'm struggling to learn the GMH (though I'm liking it a great deal). The second line stumps me 'rollrock highroad'....sounds like a food and drink thing (rolling rock beer and rocky road cake!). Our modern associations get in the way! Well, mine do...I'm hungry now...

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apprentice said...

Oh Gawd, with my memory it had better be a Basho haiku!

Rachel Fox said...

I know, I know! It's taken me a couple of days to get into my stride with it (been putting it off, doing anything but etc.) but I took it with me on my dogwalk this morning and found that much easier. The regular pace and all that probably helps...plus the fresh air, the springiness all around, the lack of laptop/phone/dishes distractions and so on. I really enjoyed it. Can't say I know it all yet...but I know more than half of it!
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Dave King said...

Okay, I do still learn stuff from time to time, mostly sections of long works, but maybe time I learnt a whole one. I'll have ago at The Idea of Order at Quay West by Wallace Stevens.

Rachel Fox said...

Excellent Dave! Look forward to hearing it if you can.
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Titus said...

Doing "The Listeners" with my youngest children at the moment (another coincidence) as it was the first poem my mother learned off by heart and the first she made me learn by heart.
Sticking with that retro theme I'm going for Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib" on the flimsy premise that I just love the first line.

Rachel Fox said...

Now we're getting a team together! Travelling poetry cabaret troupe anyone?
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Rachel Fox said...

Perhaps we should all learn a Carol Ann Duffy too - in her honour as t'were.
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Dominic Rivron said...

Sorry, but since it's now nearly 1am on Monday I won't have time to learn one by then. Should have dropped by earlier! I might have a go anyway, though. Funny how it's easier to learn songs - I'm the same. One could try making up tunes for poems to learn them, then just saying the poems afterwards. Would it work?

Rachel Fox said...

It's never too late to join in, Dominic. And that's a good idea about the tune. In fact the website I've linked to for the words is a place where someone has put tunes to Hopkins poems (including 'Inversnaid'). I couldn't listen to it though...it wasn't one of the samples and I didn't really want to buy it right then and there!
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Jim Murdoch said...

I must have had a peculiar childhood because I honestly don't remember standing up in front of the class and reciting anything. Considering when I was at school I find that hard to believe but there you go. On the odd occasion I've been compelled to stand up and do a party-piece it was always 'Fleas': Adam / Had 'em. And then I could sit down. I can actually hardly remember any of my own poems word for word, something I have felt embarrassed about on occasion but never enough to try and memorise a couple for emergencies.

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe you hated it so much as a child that you have blanked it all out, Jim!

It's a good discipline I think to try and learn something in this way. I wouldn't want to do it all the time but it makes a change...uses different bits of the brain, different types of concentration.

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