I’ve never been a great reader of poetry. School put me off. I never seemed to “get” the poems we studied in English classes and would be reduced to a state of mute panic if the teacher directed a question at me.
On the rare occasions when I’ve read poems since leaving school, I’ve read them as if they were prose. Obviously, this is a Bad Thing about which Something Needs to be Done.
I came to this realization because of two chance things that happened recently. (I have a couple of friends who would say that this was no coincidence. It was Meant to Be.)
A few weeks ago, rooting around in the local Oxfam Shop, I found a book called Poem for the Day: 366 Poems, Old and New, Worth Learning By Heart. Reader, I bought it.
And the very next day, while busy in the kitchen, I heard a programme on the radio discussing a poem by Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken‘. Now, this is a poem I know, though not by heart, and I’ve always been sceptical of its usual interpretation. How gratifying it was to discover that the poet, in an interview from the 1950s rebroadcast in this programme, agreed with me, or rather I with him. Wow, I thought, I’ve understood a poem!
This made me think that I would like to unpack my Inner Anthology (as Ms Bookworld calls hers) or Stuff I Know By Heart, as I would say. I was surprised to discover that I can still say five of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a few well-known passages from the Plays (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tommorrow…; Once more unto the breach, dear friends…; This story shall the good man teach his son/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by…;Our revels now are ended…that sort of thing), as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Heaven-Haven‘ and the first verses of various other poems such as Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse‘ (you know, the one, the one that begins They fuck you up, your mum and dad…), so deliciously daring to a middle-class teenager: a poem about parents with rude words in it. I’d like to think I’ve grown up a bit since then, and understand that poem from a rather different standpoint.
But why learn poems by heart at all? Is it just to store up opportunities for showing off? I don’t think so. Here are my reasons, briefly:
The whole process of learning and reciting can gradually tease out the meaning of the poem. By that, I mean what it says to me, which may not coincide with the poet’s intention. In learning by heart, you make the poem your own.
Reciting poetry can have a calming effect in a stressful situation. It’s the music, as much as the meaning, I think.
I like the idea of possessing a personal treasury of poems that I can draw on for solace or inspiration at any time, or anywhere.
Memorizing poems is invigorating exercise for the brain. And, boy, do I need some of that!
So my project for 2006, and I hope for the rest of my life, is to learn those poems that speak to my condition or simply lift my spirits. I shall begin with this one, which suits my present mood and the mood of the weather on this wet and windy January day:
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Gerard Manley Hopkins