Is there a poem in your head?

On 2nd October, UK National Poetry Day, we’re launching our nationwide Poetry and Memory Survey to find out what poetry is in the nation’s collective memory.

Another poetry poll?

Not exactly. There have indeed been various poetry polls in the past, most aimed at finding the favourites. Many people will remember the BBC’s search for Nation’s Favourite Poem with Griff Rhys Jones in 1996. That resulted in a top place for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, and a clutch of ‘favourite poem’ anthologies. And just last year, Radio 4’s Poetry Please analysed all requests to the programme to reveal that, most of all, listeners would like to be stopping by woods on a snowy evening with Robert Frost. Our aim, however, is rather different. We want to discover what poems people know by heart – what poetry resides in our collective memory. To the best of our knowledge, this is first time a survey of this kind and scope has been attempted.

Had we been doing this research a hundred or even fifty years ago, the results would doubtless have been more predictable. Up until 1944 the memorisation and recitation of poetry was prescribed on the school curriculum, and children memorised certain ‘staple poems’, which, as Catherine Robson records in her fascinating study, Heartbeats,* had lasting effects on those who learned them. But in the second half of the century, poetry learning became deeply unfashionable within education – the baby thrown out with the rote-learning bathwater. And yet, many people do still know a poem or two, for all sorts of reasons. So that’s what we’d like to know: what are the poems that live in people’s memories, at this moment, in October 2014? For some, it might well be a ‘favourite poem’, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case for everyone.

What does the survey involve?

We’re asking anyone who has a poem in their head to come and tell us about it. So the central questions are, what poem do you know? And when and why did you learn it? It can be any poem, and any type of poem – we just ask that it isn’t a song lyric or a nursery rhyme.

Secondly, we’re asking a couple of fairly open-ended questions about what this poem means for you. The important thing here is that we’re emphatically not looking for GCSE English answers, or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’. Rather, we want to know what significance this particular poem holds for you. This might be to something do with the meaning, but it could also be to do with the sound. It may be that there’s one line which is particularly special. It may be that how you understand or feel about the poem has changed over the years.  It may be that you associate the poem with a particular occasion or period of your life. Or, it could be that the poem you know actually has very little meaning or significance for you at all – and we want to know about that, too. And you can write as much (or as little) as you like for these questions – it's up to you.

Finally, we also ask for a few personal details: gender, nationality and so on.

What are we hoping to find out?

Straight off, we expect to be able to announce what poem or poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation. But aside from a headline top ten and other vital statistics, there’s a great deal more that we’ll be able to do with this data.  We’ll be able to investigate, for example, the reasons why people now learn poetry, and the perceived value of doing so. We’re particularly interested in questions about the ‘use’ of learned poems – how they might act as an emotional resource, contribute to a sense of identity, assist in the development of an ear for language, engender a sense of community, play a role in memories of a personal or communal past. What, in fact, is distinctive about this form of relationship with a poem? What does knowing a poem mean for someone, and indeed what different things does it mean for different people?

Poetry and Memory needs YOU!

We’ve worked hard on developing this survey, and we’re really looking forward to seeing the responses and sharing some of the results. But, of course, its success as a piece of research hangs on getting a good response – which means we need lots of people to take part. So we really do need your help. You can do this in two ways.

TAKE PART IN THE SURVEY – if you have a poem in your head, please come and tell us about it. 

SPREAD THE WORD –  even if you don’t know a poem yourself, do pass the word on to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. We should also mention that it will be possible for print out a copy of the survey to give to anyone unable to access it online. They can then post it back to us using the Freepost address.

You can get spreading any way you fancy. Phone a friend. Find us on Facebook (The Poetry and Memory Project). Tweet on Twitter  (@poetryandmemory #poetryandmemorysurvey).  Print a poster and display it on your favourite notice board. And if you have any other ideas … let’s be having them!

Whatever you can do, we’ll be enormously grateful.

Debbie Pullinger

* Robson, Catherine (2012) Heartbeats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press.