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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