On Knowing the Words

I have started learning poems by heart again. The first time round, I was six and under orders from Mrs Russell, a primary-school teacher who sometimes said ‘bugger’ loudly in the classroom and whose brisk curly hair later made me conflate her with my mental image of the Queen in middle age. Every other weekend, the class homework was to memorize twenty or perhaps thirty lines of verse. We were allowed to choose a poem ourselves, which meant the whole task was probably a mischievous assignment designed as much to test our parents as their children. I invariably selected something from an illustrated book of comic verse that somebody had given me as a birthday present.

It was a bantam-weight anthology which had ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile?’ and other staples of Victorian nonsense, several extracts from Hilaire Belloc, various poems by Brian Patten and Roger McGough, and a lot of Spike Milligan (which delighted me, since my father would unfailingly run through Milligan’s greatest hits, usually more than once, whenever we took a long car journey). There was something fun about giants scoffing giant jellies, which, more than twenty years later, is the only poem that I’m convinced I learnt: I envied those of my classmates who, when called on to recite after the morning milk-break, managed to elicit laughter from an otherwise unresponsive crowd as they unwrapped fresh little imaginative surprises from what I for one took to be dusty verse-claddings.

Given that other weekends were dedicated to the times tables and tedious adventures in spelling, the primary intention of this exercise must have been not to cultivate our jejune poetic sensibilities but to beef up our memories as they struggled to retain the right letters in the right order in words like ‘lorry’, ‘volcano’, or ‘yoghurt’. Of course, poetry and mnemonic vigour have long been associated, and in rather more distinguished surroundings than our suburban schoolroom: the tradition stretches back at least as far as the Greek poet Simonides, who Cicero later celebrated for inventing the first architectural system of memory, then on through eras of bards and balladeers. And on a technical level, it’s not hard to see that almost any poem ponders its relationship to memory even when its ostensible subject is elsewhere: devices like rhyme, rhythm and repetition mean that verse tends to ruminate on its own past with a far greater intensity than prose. Ironically, I don’t remember which poems I or anyone else blundered through in Mrs Russell’s classroom; but no doubt plenty of owls went off that year with their feline sweethearts to play with punky pigs and runcible spoons. I do know that it was in the car to school on Monday mornings that I began to realise a first-rank talent for cramming: cobbling the sort of botch-job from rhyming couplets that could be trusted to hold fast for just as long as it would take to unveil then be shot of it.

This wasn’t strictly learning by heart, then. The notion of knowing by heart may well be a linguistic throwback to the period before the intellectual faculties migrated to the brain, but its idiomatic safeguarding in everyday speech suggests that when we do earnestly memorize a poem or piece of music, we prefer to associate it not with the rigour of the head but with a version of memory that is more intimate, more valuable, and perhaps more vulnerable. Our language can still imagine storing vital types of knowledge in the heart, which might include writing, an anatomical fallacy that Robert Browning worked into an incisive pun when he asked a couplet to carry out its own post-mortem: ‘Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it “Italy”’. (Though as Kirstie Blair has brilliantly shown, no sooner did any Victorian poet lodge their heart in verse than they began to fret about its susceptibility to heart disease, or to arrhythmia, or to one or several of the new conditions that medical science was cooking up for those unquiet hearts and minds.)

This is nicely caught in a cute lyric that has stuck fast since I first cribbed it from a poster on the London Underground. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Close close all night’ watches two lovers as they slumber, lovers who both know ‘all / the other knows / learnt by heart / from head to toes’. I love the way one bodily cliché tangles with another here through that sequence of prepositions (‘by…from…to’). Their syntactic proximity – it might even be an embrace – asks us to take note of what we might otherwise take for granted: with its succinct lilt, this poem intimates how easily it can be kenned as it makes to deny the inordinate complexity of the knowledge it tells of. If only, the poem seems to say, we could commit to each other as effortlessly as we can commit its lines to memory.

There was probably very little to hearten Mrs Russell as we mangled the jabberwock or hacked away at English teeth back in Form II. I remember next to nothing about similar drills at prep school, other than one slight recollection of being pricked to sleep by a classmate’s moony remix of Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’ (it seems unfathomable, revisiting Bess the landlord’s daughter now, to think that she failed to spike the attention of my schoolboy self). And by the time we were studying GCSE and then A-level English in the late ’90s, there was no requirement and, so far as I recall, little encouragement to memorize verse. Our teachers could no doubt hear the traffic thickening on the information superhighway: knowledge retrieval was increasingly giving way to search engines and their industrious results.

After Patrick Leigh Fermor’s death this year, I went back to A Time of Gifts, the remarkable account of the first leg of his almighty tramp to Constantinople in the 1930s (vividly remembered after a lapse of forty years, the book is a prodigious testament to things learnt by and later felt along the heart). Even allowing for the deceptive modesty of hindsight and for the fact that he was no ordinary truant, Fermor’s inventory of the ‘private anthology’ of verse he had by memory on that journey is a sharp surprise for someone, like me, schooled in the 1990s. ‘The range’, he writes, ‘is fairly predictable and all too revealing of the scope, the enthusiasms and the limitations, examined at the eighteenth milestone, of a particular kind of growing up’, before listing, among many others, ‘stretches of Spenser’s Pro- and Epithalamion […] any amount of Rossetti […] passages from Donne and Herrick and Quarles […] an abundance of A. E. Housman’.  I have three degrees in English literature and need Wikipedia to tell me about Francis Quarles (that his Christian name was Francis, for a start). When I left school in 2001 I had a) some fragments I had shored against the exam-board’s ruins and b) Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ – which, with its chirpy rhythm and solid rhymes, seemed expressly written to give teenagers poetic license to say ‘fuck’ not once, but twice, in front of their parents.

Even when, studying English Literature at university, I started picking up the occasional verse in idle moments outside the faculty library, it wasn’t a growing appreciation of what it might mean to interiorize poetry that motivated me. Reciting poetry without the book was sheer college swagger, coupling a phony suaveness that came from knowing the words with a knowing weariness that came from someone else’s having written them for you. Sonnets were short, so I learnt a few of them to slosh around as party pieces. It unnerves me now to reflect on how many times I’ve breathed the pure serene of ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ or the thin air of Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) over captive audiences on punts, in pubs, and, more recently, on tour coaches. I owe you an apology if you have been one of the Japanese language students, American tourists, or (especially) one of the girls I flailed to impress with another bout of wild surmise.

Indeed, I have rasped through Sonnet 130 with such a frequency as to have amplified that travestying of its waggish anti-Petrarchan sentiment which occurred as soon as it became an anthologists’ favourite. Turning back to its text now, it’s disconcerting but hardly surprising to note that my own renditions of it have started to collude with the flattening effect of the flattery it tries to take against: how many years have I been substituting ‘fair’ for ‘rare’ in the penultimate line of the poem (‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare’), as if to blanche the last distinguishing colour from its addressee? (The poem has wrought its revenge on me. For whatever reason, I tried to out-Branagh Branagh when I first recited it, packing my voice with so many plums that I can no longer speak any verse now without a camp fruitiness overwhelming its more delicate notes.)

Having poetry by heart will never be unpretentious again, either for me or for anybody else: it seems impossible that we’ll ever return to a literary climate in which verse and its practitioners aren’t considered somehow special cases by those who lie beyond its miniature public. It’s a pretentiousness that redoubles even in the act of my writing about it, for I can’t help sensing that the embarrassment felt in thinking back to my shameless past performances finds its a way of preening gently in the soft shadows of regret. But the posturing that poetry now entails is in fact one of the reasons to be learning it again, for what does the lyric voice do if not dramatize our everyday negotiations between private sentiment and public posture? Many of my favourite poems, such as Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’, sound like secrets that need to be shared, but know that feeling is often discredited in its divulgence. They yearn to be taken by heart and have you sound out their voice in yours.

So I am learning short poems again. My long-dormant interest in poetry has begun to twitch in the year since I annulled my brief academic marriage to it. I want to know more about what poems show and hide than I do when I scratch at their cadences on the page. I want to hear and feel them differently. So far, I have Herbert’s ‘Love (III)’ and Bishop’s ‘One Art’ and Michael Donaghy’s ‘Machines’ and they are spinning like whirligigs that show no sign of slowing. Nothing outlandish or avant-garde. Just poems to remember by heart, the better to know the lyric voice in all its ostentation and intimacy.