In the news today is Dame Judi Dench's revelation that she learns a poem every day to keep her mind active. This tidbit is as tantalising as it is exciting. It would be fascinating to find out how many years she has been doing this, whether she could still remember the poems she has learned, are there any poems that seem to pop up in the memory … and so on. (If only she could be persuaded to participate in our survey!)
Equally of interest to me is what she says about where her love of poetry came from. Asked in an interview at the Stratford-Upon-Avon Poetry Festival whether there was poetry in her family, she replied. “Absolutely – my father would come upstairs in a morning while I was asleep and wake me up with verse: “Awake, for morning in the bowl of night has cast the stone that puts the stars to flight”, he would shout in my bedroom. Daddy knew the whole of Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur by heart, he was a lovely man.”
In our previous research project, a much smaller study of local poetry teachers, we found that the teachers who knew some poetry by heart had all had a parent who recited poetry to them as children – and it was nearly always a father. Our sample was by no means large enough to make any claims about this, but evidence from this other sources certainly supports the idea that poetry is transmitted in vivo. And the idea that it might tend to come down through fathers is a most intriguing one.
Did you ‘inherit’ a love of poetry? Do come and tell us about it!
Yesterday, I met one of my neighbours on my street walking his dog. “Didn’t I see you on the telly?” he said. “Yes,” I admitted, a bit sheepishly, “that would have been when we launched our survey” – and I explained briefly what it's all about. “Oh, that’s really cool!” he said. And he meant it.
That was a fairly typical reaction. There’s something about this project that seems to have immediate connection for many people. But I'm still being constantly surprised.
When I met the dog-walking neighbour, I was in fact on my way out to a College dinner where I’d arranged to meet a friend. As we sat down at the table, she leaned across and whispered excitedly, “You know, you are surrounded by people who know poetry!" You see that tall man on the next table. He can recite some Hamlet. And the girl next to him – she knows Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. And the man next to her …
It turned out that last Thursday she’d heard the piece about National Poetry Day on Radio Four's Today programme (though not really aware that it was our project) and made it her mission that day to find out what poems people in the college knew. During the course of the evening, I met several of them who gamely recited one or two lines.
I found this an intriguing idea: the notion we were at that moment surrounded by little pieces of poetry, living inside people. Like underground springs, they’re invisible, but bubbling beneath the surface and potentially life-giving.
You might imagine my enterprising friend was an English scholar, but she’s actually an architect. But then, as Goethe said, architecture is frozen music.
Seeing all the responses start to come in last week was quite an emotional moment for me. Partly it was sheer relief: the realisation that it’s actually worked; we’re going to have some data worth the analysis. Partly it was seeing the thought, care and enthusiasm that so many people had put in to their responses. I’ve started to put some up (anonymised) snippets, hoping that, like the audio they might act as a spur to reflection.
And today was another milestone – the arrival of our first ‘print-and-post survey’. If you know anyone who doesn’t have access to the Internet who’d be interested in participating, and can print one off for them, we'd be most grateful!
National Poetry Day may be over, but it’s still Poetry and Memory Month!
Our survey, which runs throughout October, has already got off to a great start. When we launched on Thursday, the project was featured on Radio 4’s Today programme, ITV Anglia News, and Radio Scotland’s Culture Studio. And our own Cambridge News rose to the occasion in poetic mode. (Click the image to view.)
That first day also brought – to our huge relief – a surge of survey responses.
We’ve also had lots of messages from people expressing interest in and support for the project, along with various questions. So here on our first ‘Live Survey Blog’, I thought I’d deal with a few FAQs. (All genuine questions and comments.)
I was born in the UK, but I don’t live there now. And I’d love to take part – why can’t I?
One of the aims of the survey is to try and build up a picture of poetry that people know today in the UK, so we didn’t want to complicate that particular issue by extending the survey beyond its borders. However, it has other aims that relate to our wider investigation. We’re also interested in what people who know a poem by heart have to say about that poem, how they feel about memorised poetry, and where and why the poems have been learned. So we’ve now set up a separate survey which is open to anyone from the UK but currently living abroad. You can do that survey here.
So, do you think our experience of a poem is really different when it’s in our memory, and what are the effects?
We don’t know yet. There’s virtually no research on this; that’s why we’re doing this. (We do have ideas, of course, but we don’t want to pre-empt the actual findings.)
This is fascinating! When and where can I find out the results?
We hope to post some of our ‘headline’ findings here on the website not too long after the survey has closed. These will be some of the results of the initial quantitative analysis – the most frequently learned poems and poets, the age at which poetry tends to be learned, and so on. However, if you’ve done our survey, you’ll know that we also ask a couple of more open-ended questions. The analysis of this qualitative data – which, in turn, we will be looking at in relation both to the other elements of the survey and to work within the wider investigation – is going to take a great deal longer. But again, we will put news of when and where our findings are published on this website.
That’s a long time to wait.
It is. But then good research, as opposed to a quick poll, takes time. In the meantime, we've got a daily snapshot quote on this blog and survey page.
I registered for a reminder but I didn’t get one.
We sent them out on Thursday but there were a very small number of email addresses that bounced back. Apologies if that was one of yours.
I know a Pullinger. Are you related?
Yes. No. Perhaps. But only sort of.