I’ve begun to learn poetry. Actually, it’s not exactly a beginning; I did make a start previously. I’m of the generation that didn’t learn any poems at school, but I did learn a good many for speech and drama festivals and exams. Sadly, though I can remember which poems they were, barely a line has stuck. So until recently I could claim about three poems known by heart, but none of them learned as a child. For years I assumed it was deficiency on my part, but now I can see that we were not well taught. Our attention was directed towards superficial, dramatic effect; no personal, considered engagement with the poetry was encouraged.
I know I’m not alone. In our Poetry and Memory Project, there were people who described comparable experiences of losing poems perfunctorily learned. Equally, I should say, there were those who learned poems ‘by rote’ which did lodge, and later on unfold their meaning. Nevertheless, it does appear that there are ways to learn which are more likely to create a lasting and rewarding relationship with the poem.
Early on in the project, seeking personal experience of the phenomenon I was investigating, I decided to begin afresh. After some early success with Larkin’s ‘Trees’, I set my sights on some Yeats and some Herbert. They were sort of sticking, but it felt hard going and my eventually my resolve failed. Then a few weeks ago, I began afresh, afresh … And this time it’s a new world. So what’s changed?
Instrumental in bringing me to the point of another serious attempt was an interview I did with man who had started learning poetry seriously as an adult, and had 100 poems up his sleeve. He also said – and here’s what made me sit up – that he wasn’t actually very good at learning poetry.
As he described his methods, I could see that he really worked at it. But love’s labour was certainly not lost. And that made me think there’s hope for anyone, even me.
Inspired by this, and drawing on what I’d learned from the project, off I went. I can’t offer a foolproof method, or any method. In a way, method is exactly what it isn’t. What I have is a few gleanings and glimmerings from many individual accounts of learning practices and processes, including, now, my own. Together, they might amount to something, but it’s not a method.
Significantly, the poetry-learning habit I’m acquiring is one that fits me and that I’ve worked out for myself. I think that’s why I found it hard to take to poetry learning apps; the strategies, and to a large extent the poems, are imposed. I say that regretfully, because their hearts are in the right place and I’m loathe to criticise anything that gets poetry into people’s hands and hearts. But again, it may work for some.
Whilst I’m clearing away things that didn’t work so well, I’ll just mention mnemonics. Very much the in thing at the moment, but also at recurring moments since Simonides’ dinner table disaster in the first century BC. One popular form, by which a mental architectural space (street, house, palace) is conjured and then populated with objects be recalled, is sometimes offered as a poetry-learning technique. Such techniques, says Ted Hughes, in his introduction to By Heart, ‘can systematically exploit the brain’s natural techniques for remembering’. Certainly, working with the grain of the brain makes good sense, and I don’t doubt that this can be an effective way to install some lines in the mind. It’s just that, for me at any rate, the mental effort required to construct and furnish my introspective setting feels cumbersome. However, mental laziness aside, I feel, too, that the superimposed locations and images rather divert attention away from the poem itself, obscuring the poem’s own set of integral features and even delaying appreciation.
For it seems to me that a poem is its own memory palace. The word stanza is Italian for ’room’ – a space that you can inhabit and explore. Some of the participants in our research talked about the way that, once they have the poem inside them, they then feel as if they are inside the poem. One interviewee said:
“I seemed to come to know the poem from inside, as if it were a landscape that I had to navigate with my eyes closed, learning where the dips and climbs were, when to turn left or right, and what outcrops to avoid; it felt very physical.”
And most poems come amply furnished with their own mnemonic fittings and features. So we can indeed exploit the brain’s natural techniques for remembering, but these might be more effective when working in synergy work with the poem’s natural means of being remembered?
So what did work? If anything, I’d say it’s a disposition as much as a technique; a how as much as a what. It’s a learning that does not feel quite like learning so much as a getting to know. I’m loathe to ennumerate tips and techniques but, with caveats in place, here are a few observations.
Begin with the whole
I begin with the whole poem, spend time with it, make friends with it, see what’s there, what’s lovely, what’s strange. This may sound incredibly obvious, and of course it is. But in one of my previous learning sprees, I was so anxious to ram the lines in that I tended to rush over this part, leaping straight to the learning. Which was completely counterproductive.
Aware of the subtle self-imposed pressure to get the thing into my head during previous episodes of memorisation, I try for a more relaxed approach. I used to feel a bit in awe of some poems, they just seemed unapproachable, which added to the self-imposed pressure. So, no rush. A certain insouciance seems to allow poems to come in at their own pace.
Speaking and sharing
From the off, I speak every line. Or at least mouth and breathe it (‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’ may not be something you want to declare to the doctor’s waiting room.) And not only saying it, but saying it as if to share it with someone else. I don’t have an actual audience in mind; my listener is a pretty indeterminate figure, but effective in their role nonetheless. This vocalising or subvocalising has a number of benefits. First, I really hear the sound of the poem, which is, in substantial part, its art. But it’s also the sense of a sharing with someone else – which is what a poem is ultimately for – which powerfully activates the rhythm and draws out possible intonations. Vitally, I can feel the way the breath runs through the line, shaped and stopped along the way by vowels and consonants. As a further spin-off, if you are learning it for a public recitation, you’re already beginning to bridge the gap that many people encounter between inner recitation and public performance.
Going at the poem’s pace
I once read an article by a journalist who set out to learn 100 poems, and who, on the elephant-eating principle, did it by learning two lines a night. Again, I previously tried something similar – and a bit of routine to get the habit established was definitely a good thing. I still often rehearse last thing at night. But enforcing the two-line rule (or four or whatever) seems like an arbitrary restriction that may cut across the structure or sense of the poem, or both. Now, I simply tend to take whatever suggests itself as the next portion to be learned – which may be the next four-line stanza, or the unpacking of the next idea (usually the case in a Shakespeare sonnet, for example), or a section with a different rhythm or rhyme scheme. And if I feel like going on further, I do.
Although I find it unhelpful to impose a mnemonic scheme, such as trying to imagine the route through a poem as a walk through a house, tuning in to what one might call the poem’s ‘natural mnemonics’, and to the mind’s natural propensities, is productive. To take a very simple example:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
The irresistible image, however fuzzy, of a blazing sun, and perhaps even a faint sensation of heat on the skin, is worth picking up on. Now, when I get to ‘all too short a date’, I’m already glimpsing a deep blue sky and dazzling sunshine. Similarly, I found in the early stages of learning that particular poem, that I tended to stumble over the slightly awkward word order, starting the line every time with ‘Too hot’. But then, noticing the chime of sometime and shine at opposite ends of the line seemed to settle it all into place, so that along with the image I now get a foreshadowing of the line’s rhythmic shape. The end rhyme shine, furthermore, seems to pull‘Every fair from fair sometime declines’ into earshot. I realise that this might all sound just as cumbersome as the memory palace. But the things I’m describing are subtle, almost on the edges of consciousness, and always arise naturally from the mind’s engagement with the poem.
Great to get it wrong
I used to be so focused on getting the thing right, that getting lines wrong– even, quite ridiculously, at first attempt – signalled clearly to me my memory’s failings, feeding the vicious circle of eroding confidence. (Of course, I completely failed to clock the parts that I did recall accurately.)
In a previous life, I worked in an office. And when one of the computers went wrong we would call a man from IT. I’m afraid it was always a man, and usually with black t-shirt and ponytail. What really marked him out as a completely different species, however, was his reaction to the problem. Shown the bit of malfunctioning that was making someone spit and growl, he would peer at the screen with genuine fascination, always with the words, ‘That’s interesting …’
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the mind or the poem can be reduced to bits of code; both are the antitheisis of mechanism. But it reminds me of an approach to problems that I often struggle to take. With learning a poem, too, the slippages can be fascinating. In the introduction to her commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poet Helen Vendler said that she found it necessary to learn them to arrive at the understandings she proposes. Moreover, when scanning them in memory, the pieces of the whole that resisted memorisation would turn out, on investigation, to reveal some aspect of the design that she had missed previously. Similarly, I find that when I attend to the gap, I usually discover the reason why it does not obviously and naturally follow on, either in sound or sense. And then I might notice a more subtle relation to the rest of the poem – what the poet is up to – which, once discovered, tends to assume a role as a natural mnemonic.
More is more
I used to think that having more than one poem on the go would lead to overload or confusion. But that thought came from a faulty, mechanistic conception of memory. In this case, less is not more; more is more and seems to work better. I’m still pondering about the reason for this. I think it may linked with keeping that more relaxed focus. If all attention is on one poem, learning is more likely to become the focus (see below).
Keep looking at the poem
One finding that emerged from the Poetry and Memory Project that initially seemed surprising was that people who knew a lot of poetry by heart were also the people who were most engaged with the poem on the page. They were the people with treasured anthologies, bulging notebooks, scraps of paper with verses lovingly copied and handed on. Some, too, have poems on their phones or other portable devices. So there’s no sense that the poem committed to memory supersedes the one on the page. Neither threatens the other, and the poem in memory seems to thrive in the context of a varied textual landscape. Inspired by some of my respondents, I have handwritten my poems into a book, which certainly reinforces my sense of ownership. I also have them on my phone, which is brilliant for a quick check on a line in the waiting room situation.
Keep looking at the poem
It may now be apparent that much of the above has been about keeping attention away from the process of recall and on the poem, about getting myself out of the way. As with many things in life, learning by heart may be best achieved as a by product.
Believing is conceiving
Finally, research shows that people recall better if they believe they have a good memory. I suspect this is partly because, conversely, believing one’s memory is poor tends to shift the focus away from the poem, onto the memorisation process, again creating counter-productive anxiety that tends to short-circuit the process of recall. As we all know from trying to recall a name, memory just seems to work better if you just leave it to get on with the job undisturbed.
Sharing with real people
I haven’t yet got to the stage where I can supply an apt line for any occasion (as a few of my interviewees seemed able to do), but I am finding that lines are coming to mind more readily. I’ve also recited or shared lines in the context of talking about the project and about learning poetry for performance. I rarely go beyond about four lines, but still it bolsters my sense of connection with the poem.
When you climb a mountain, you begin by strolling over shallow lower slopes, perhaps admiring the summit objective. Then there’s a really hard stretch of ascent. But once over that, you can ease up and enjoy the view. There’ll be a few smaller ups and downs, but you can stride out and enjoy the view, knowing the steep haul is behind you.
So, I’ve found, with learning poems. Recalling the ones I’ve really got by heart now feels effortless, and it seems remarkable even that some lines caused so much trouble. Occasionally a line disappears, or more usually, I lose confidence about a word or word order– was it ‘a’ or‘the’? Is it ‘fast thick pants’ or a ‘thick fast pants’ – but once checked it rarely slips again.
 Cicero records a story about banquet in Thessaly, attended by the poet Simonides. After his performance, Simonides went outside briefly, during which time the roof of the hall collapsed. All the guests were killed and their bodies crushed beyond recognition. Simonides found he was able to identify the bodies by recalling his mental image of the table, and the place of each guest. From this, as Cicero said, he inferred that persons desiring to train their memory could ‘select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things’ (Cicero, De Oratore, II, lxxxvi – translation: Sutton & Rackham, 1942).
 Hughes, T. (1997). By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember. London, Faber and Faber.
 Vendler, H. (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, Mass. and London, Harvard University Press.