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Our interdisciplinary project is investigating the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding.

Poetry memorisation and recitation were once inscribed in British education and woven into the fabric of cultural life, but have declined dramatically in recent years. Although there are signs of reviving interest in these practices alongside their reinstatement on the UK primary curriculum, there is almost no research on their effects, or on how they might best be embedded within pedagogy. Our findings will be relevant for pedagogical policy and practice, and contribute to wider discourses about cultural identity and locations of knowledge.

The funded phase of project began in January 2014 and ran to December 2016. We are beginning to publish our findings whilst continuing analysis of our extensive data set, and exploring possibilities for future development and dissemination.

 

Aims and objectives

Learning poetry by heart was once inscribed in the British school curriculum and woven into the fabric of cultural life, but has now declined to the point where knowing and being able recite poetry is no longer a cultural norm. At the same time, there is a distinct nostalgia for a time when people could readily summon up lines of verse, supplying poetic insight for any occasion and reinforcing a sense of shared cultural heritage. This dichotomy was reflected in our own, earlier study of teachers’ perceptions of poetry teaching: some thought that memorising poetry was ‘old fashioned’, if not a real threat to enjoyment and engagement; but for those who had learned poetry themselves when young it was evidently a cherished resource for teaching and for life. Whilst memorisation and recitation were reinstated on the English primary curriculum in 2012, it was not on the basis of research evidence. Since then, informal reports have indicated that in some classrooms the requirement is being met with reluctance, with some teachers using potentially counterproductive methods. At secondary level, the reversion to ‘closed book’ examinations, with its implied obligation to memorise, has been met with similar ambivalence.

At the heart of this ambivalence are questions about the relationship memorisation has with engagement and understanding. The wider cultural context, meanwhile, is one in which there are signs of reviving interest in the practices of memorisation and recitation – perhaps in part a result of anxiety about the increasing outsourcing of our memory to external devices. Our project therefore took as its central research questions:

·       What is the distinctive value of the memorised poem?

·       What is the relationship between memorisation and understanding?

The enquiry was therefore not into the value of learning poetry, a question that tends to put the focus on the act of memorisation. Rather, working on the assumption that a poem often unfolds its significance for a person over time, we set out to investigate the variety of ways in which the memorised poem may be experienced and be valuable. Our aim was to find out, in the broadest possible terms, what is distinctive about this form of engagement.

Methodology

Since the memorisation of poetry is a complex phenomenon arising from the interplay of social, cultural and psychological factors, this enquiry has taken an interdisciplinary perspective and multiple angles of approach. Designed as a nested, multiple-methods project, the investigation has collected and is now analysing and integrating data collected through three strands: literary and documentary research, online survey and in-depth interviews.

A national survey
On National Poetry Day in 2014, we launched a national online survey. The survey is now closed, but you can still view the portal and survey questionnaire here. We asked people to name one poem they knew by heart, and to tell us about its significance for them. We also asked questions about when and why they learned poetry, as well as gathering salient personal details. We now have around 500 responses.

In-depth interviews
We have conducted 38 in-depth interviews with selected survey participants and other informants.

FINDINGS AND OUTCOMES

The data we have collected is rich and substantial. Our analysis has succeeded in identifying a number of central themes that we know are of interest to leading figures in education, the arts and in therapeutic interventions, and we have developed an excellent network of relationships within these fields. Although a small project, Poetry and Memory has developed a strong public presence, and we respond to frequent enquiries from media representatives

The project’s modest size has limited what could be achieved within the funding period, and there is potential for further analysis on our data set and for other development of the work. We are investigating ways to do this, including making the database publically available to researchers for other studies, and finding routes to influence thinking and policy within education.

Significance

For formal education, our findings will contribute to the research evidence base available to educational policy-makers and practitioners. As well as having obvious application for the teaching of English, they will also be relevant for literary study within other subject domains such as ancient and modern languages, and drama.

For wider society, an element of culture is being lost, and questions about exactly what we are losing, and whether there is anything that we might want to recover, remain largely unexamined. In this context, our project will contribute to cultural understandings of the locations and functions of literature in memory.

Within a broader context, questions about the value of poetry learning can be also located within the wider context of the enormous changes being wrought by technology to the ways in which we perceive, think and interact with the world, including the “outsourcing” of human memory to digital devices. Now that we can summon any of a thousand poems onto a smartphone or tablet in seconds, the idea of keeping a sonnet in our head might, on the face of it, seem rather pointless. Here, our study relates to concerns about the short-circuiting of learning and the shallowness of cognitive processing; it contributes to discourse about locations of knowledge and the ways in which embodied knowledge operates in the lives of individuals and society.