Why Learn Poems By Heart?
Can’t sing? Or do card tricks? Then how about learning a poem as your party trick instead? Not only will it impress your family (I promise you!), it may just do you some good too, especially at reducing stress.
I’ve loved having poems on the tip of my tongue ever since the time my school started offering elocution lessons. We didn’t know what they were, but my parents – always keen to try new things –signed me up. Other children complained about it, but I never did. The hour I spent in a dusty room with the teacher we called the “speech lady” was something special because this was someone who loved poetry for its own sake, rather than as a punishment.
She would wave her head around so excitedly as I recited poems she’d make me learn by heart that her hair used to fall down from its bun. But instead of being embarrassed for her, as I was for most adults at that time, it felt like we were sharing a secret. Hey, poetry is fun! She’d normally start by mouthing along with me, gently correcting my pronunciation, but sometimes she’d forget and join in. There was one she could never resist, and I can still recite the first few verses of that poem now. It started with the lines:
The old brown horse looked over the fence
In a weary sort of way
It seemed to be saying to all who passed,
“look folks, I’ve had my day.”
I’ve just had to look up the ending, and as well as finding out it was by W.F. Holmes, I was surprised how sad the last verse is:
So if you pass by the field one day,
Just stop for a word or two
With the old brown horse who was once as young
And as full of life as you.
He’ll love the touch of your soft young hand,
And I know he’ll seem to say-
“Oh, thank you, friend, for the kindly thought
For a horse who has had his day.”
At the time I just thought it was about horses, a passion of mine, so I still poured every inch of meaning I could into it, but now I see it quite differently. This is one of the joys of poetry for me. Each poem can keep changing its meaning and how they sound when I speak them out loud still makes me feel different inside.
Learning them, and speaking them out, is a way of making the poem mine. Much more so than when I just read it on the page. I think one of the clearest examples of this happened in the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, when the character of Matthew recites the poem, Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’ by W.H. Auden, at Gareth’s funeral. Listening to him “feel” that poem was so powerful that it introduced many of the film’s audience to poetry.
Falling In Love With Words
It was certainly during my year with the speech lady that I first fell in love with words; the joy in playing with what they meant came later. She didn’t believe in any old dry recitation of vowels and consonants. Encouraged by her, the rhymes rolled round in my mouth, almost as if I could taste them. And of course through learning those poems, I was being taught all the techniques of poetry – alliteration, rhyme, and how images can be brought so completely to life that it was hard sometimes to shake myself out of the little world the poem created.
How different from the strict aims of “character building” and “discipline” that are often given as a reason for learning poems by heart. If anything, I enjoyed myself so much that it felt I must be doing something wrong!
And it’s given me a resource I can call on often. There are some lines I whisper to myself when I’m feeling sad, others give me courage, while still others take me to a different world when I’m doing day to day tasks. Walk round the supermarket, for instance, mumbling Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge and you won’t care about any strange looks!
Earth has not anything to show more fair,
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty
Said with feeling, it cheers up every situation!
And it’s also the perfect party trick. I’m amazed at how clever other people think I am just for doing something so enjoyable and simple. It’s addictive though. This is one of my favorites. It’s The Jabberwock by Lewis Carroll, and really fun to do with kids. I’m not sure there’s a way you can do this wrong, and lots of eye rolling and hand movements spice it up no end!
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
”Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two!
And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.
Oh, I just read that out loud as I typed, and I feel better already! Do you have a favorite poem for reading aloud? I’d love to hear it.
Photo by moon_dreamr.