Memorising Poetry

'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'

‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’

I first learned a poem by heart when I was eighteen. I had a pocket edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and my friend was late arriving to meet me, so I made use of the time, and learned Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

I was never required to learn a single poem by heart during all of my years in state education. It’s one of the many missed opportunities which I deeply regret, and one of the glaring omissions in current practice which I am determined to put right.

The only way to give poetry its due is to memorise it. Leaving it on the page is the equivalent of being content with reading the score of a symphony, when you could learn to play it. We can all play the symphony of words. It’s within the grasp of anyone, even the illiterate. It is one of the most egalitarian, empowering and unifying things that can be done with literature. It places on the lips of Everyman the most powerful and inspiring words that have ever been spoken in the English language.

When you memorise a poem, you take possession of it. It becomes part of your mental landscape. You can take it out and look at it whenever you wish. You can turn it around in your mind as you walk the pavement, as you ride the train, considering its many qualities, as you might admire the many sparkling surfaces of a polished diamond. It is yours to treasure and enjoy for the rest of your life. If the internet goes down, if the power is cut off, no matter. You have a power source within which is not dependent on these modern contrivances. It only depends upon the humanity you share with everyone.

When one considers the many benefits, personal, intellectual and cultural, which flow from memorising great poetry, one has to ask why on earth it was ever dropped from the curriculum in British schools. Why would you drop something so powerful and enriching, that is open to everyone capable of using language, as long as they are willing to expend a certain amount of effort? But because of the attack on fixed knowledge and rote learning, generations of children have been cheated of their cultural inheritance.

But I want to end positively. Memorising poetry is one of the core elements of my teaching now. It may be harder now I am in my thirties, but I am seizing the opportunity to fill my own mind with beautiful poetry. If I insist my pupils master it, I must do the same. Typically my lessons begin with all pupils reciting a poem together as they walk into the classroom. It’s an inspiring, uplifting and unifying way to start. As our repertoire grows, it gets ever more enjoyable.

I’m currently learning Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ with year eight:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . .

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Standard English Rules

George Bernard Shaw may have satirised social perceptions of speech, but he certainly used Standard English himself.

George Bernard Shaw may have satirised social perceptions of speech, but he certainly used Standard English himself.

If we do not vigorously, unashamedly promote standard English in every classroom, we are doing our pupils a terrible disservice. Standard English is the language which opens doors, the language which allows access to professional work and to literate, educated discourse. Those who come from middle class homes where English is the first language just pick it up. But here, as in every other area of education, the school has a duty to add to the cultural capital of all pupils, not just to depend upon what they get outside the classroom.

It is not a matter of intelligence. All human language is complex, and all human beings achieve a remarkable cognitive feat when they learn language as young children. There are some who happen to learn a language at a young age that will open many doors to them later in life. Others do not. That does not make them stupid, but it does put them at an educational and economic disadvantage.

We must be honest and open about this. Schools must deal with reality, not the fantasies of left-wing university professors, and they must give their pupils the tools to succeed, and to take part in the cultural conversation. Standard English just happens to be the language of classic literature, and the language of power in business, politics, law, medicine or any other serious professional domain.

Promoting Standard English means insisting on specific requirements for speech as well as writing. We must adopt a strict attitude towards slang, especially the kind of crude slang that derives from certain kinds of popular music. In doing this, we are simply making the classroom an environment in which fluency in the language of power is promoted. Repeated practice and insistent correction of mistakes are necessary if fluency is to be achieved in any language, and oral fluency is always the basis of writing skills. Therefore we cannot compartmentalise language and accept informal, non-standard spoken English, while insisting that written work is slang-free.

Standard English rules. If we don’t make that clear to our pupils, they are likely to have a rude awakening when they enter the world of work. They will find themselves wishing their teachers had been tougher on them, to prepare them for life.