There’s a splendid article (may require registration*) by Daisy Godwin in today’s Sunday Times on why it’s a good idea to have a fund of memorized poems at one’s disposal.
…poetry has got me through innumerable waiting rooms, traffic jams and airport lounges. It has soothed fractious children, diverted broken-hearted friends and made romantic points. Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of A Time of Gifts, recited The Odyssey to himself as he walked across Europe; Brian Keenan used the poetry of Pablo Neruda as his touchstone during his long incarceration as a hostage in Lebanon.
And, as Daisy mentions later on in the article, a character in Ian McEwan’s Saturday saves her life by reciting Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. At least one reviewer on amazon.co.uk found this ridiculous, but I didn’t.
Daisy recommends that children learn poems by heart to improve their language skills and she reports, shockingly, that some children’s command of language is so poor when they start school that they can’t be taught to read. To this end, the children’s charity I Can is launching a Make Chatter Matter Week on 6-12 February, during which children will be sponsored to learn a poem or song by heart.
Everyone should have at least 10 poems that they can access at any time — building up a mental playlist of poems is a protection against boredom, mental atrophy, and you will never be at a loss when the batteries on your iPod finally run out. In an age of brandwashing, where advertising jingles and TV catchphrases stick in your mind, the ultimate luxury is to have what Coleridge called “the best words in the best order” always accessible.
I’m delighted, but not at all smug, to report that my own “By Heart” programme is going pretty well. I’ve got Inversnaid, Heaven-Haven and Spring and Fall all by Gerard Manley Hopkins under my belt, as well as the rest of Larkin’s This Be The Verse and (this is a bit of a cheat as I learned it as a child and thought I’d forgotten it) The Owl and the Pussy Cat. However, I’m struggling with Ted Hughes’s The Thought Fox, maybe because it doesn’t rhyme, or at least not properly (I’m so old-fashioned).
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