"The power to embed bits of language in your mind, to invade it and occupy it, is a salient feature of lyrics: poems seek to inscribe themselves in mechanical memory, Gedächtnis, ask to be learned by heart, taken in, introjected, or housed as bits of alterity that can be repeated, considered, treasured or ironically cited."
Jonathan Culler (2005) Why Lyric
WHAT WERE THE TOP POEMS?
We have had nearly 500 responses to the survey, of which 470 have so far been included in the analysis. Our respondents were 75% female and 25% male. The oldest respondent was 92 and the youngest was 18 ( the minimum age for participation) and there is we can see that there’s a good distribution across age groups, with people in their fifties and sixties being the most heavily represented. This is probably a function of the online survey; the likelihood of having poetry in the memory increases with age, but equally use of computers and the internet declines.
There were 283 different poems represented, and the poem chosen more than any other was Edward Lear's 'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat'. Of these, the poems selected three or more times are shown in the table.
If we rank the selections by poet, however, the top place is occupied by William Shakespeare (10 different poems), followed by W B Yeats (9), then Edward Lear (1).
We were quite surprised by how many poems people knew. Only 9 % knew just one poem, 45 % knew 2 to 5. 23 & knew 5–10 – and 8 respondents claimed to know more than 50.
Just over half the respondents told us about a poem that they had learned in their youth – that is, before the age of 20. But just over 20 % of the poems were learned after the age of 25 – so after the typical end of full time education. And 56 % were telling us about a poem they’d learned outside a school setting – which perhaps tallies with the fact that by far the most cited reason for learning was for 'personal pleasure', with 'personal challenge' a very close second.
We asked if learning a poem by heart has some value, and 91 % said that it did. The nature of the perceived value appears to be wide-ranging. From a list of nine possible effects, eight options were selected by at least 20%. Most popular was that 'it helps me to appreciate it more' (72%), followed by 'it is a source of comfort in tough times' (57 %). Only 2.5 % said that 'it makes no difference at all'.
Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge is the sheer variety of reported experience; no one size fits all. Experiences of learning and reciting poetry vary enormously, and the relationships between poem, modes of encounter and learning, personal psychology and social context are clearly complex. When it comes to the conditions in which poetry is learned, for example, there are no simple formulas. Within the set of responses, there are people who say they were forced to learn poetry at a young age, but are now very glad that they were so glad they did, and it set them up for life. Similiarly varied is the age at which people say they have been able to learn poetry: some say they lost the ability to learn after the age of 20, but others have discovered and developed their learning practices relatively late in life.