This year, National Poetry Day (every October) had a campaign called #thinkofapoem
Links can be found here.
It’s a brilliant idea, designed to promote children (and adults) learning a poem by heart.
It’s called “learning by heart” for a reason. The lines that get uploaded when you’re young will stay with you forever, in your heart as much as mind.
I recall being a kid of 10 and talking with our teacher about upcoming Easter plans. She had a few hairy moles on her face that we used to laugh about but was otherwise generally a rather bland but probably quite effective teacher.
“When I was your age, I asked my mum if I could have an Easter Egg. Do you know what she said?
“If you go and learn this poem, “If” by Kipling, then you can have one.”
So I did. I didn’t want to learn it but I really wanted the chocolate. Now though I’m very grateful to my mum, as I really love that poem and still know it off-by-heart.”
That tale didn’t endear me to her mother one bit. It still doesn’t. I think it’s overly Victorian parenting, ironically in keeping with Kipling’s “My Boy Jack” spirit in fact.
However, the principle of kids learning poetry by heart is a brilliant one. It’s good for them to be pushed to discover poetry: its magical powers of pristine thought and musical feeling. How it captures, in Alexander Pope’s phrase, something “often thought but ne’er so well expressed”. I still cherish the few poems I learnt back in the day. My brain’s not so spongey anymore, after all.
Recent bestselling anthology Poems That Make Grown Men Cry showcased the power of poetry and why boys particularly should never be ashamed of expressing themselves and their emotions, sometimes via poetry. I’m a big believer in that message.
The brilliant novelist Colum McCann (check out his masterful Let The Great World Spin) was one of the 100 amazing contributors to that anthology, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden.
McCann describes how these days, every Christmas, “I ask my kids to learn a poem off by heart and “give” it to me rather than a pair of socks or yet another scarf. It’s my favourite moment of the whole year. I give them a poem and they learn it.”
This approach somehow makes more sense to me, than my teacher’s mother bribing her with chocolate eggs.
Our two kids ended up learning very short, funny poems for this homework task. One of the poems was “Antagonish” by Hughes Mearns ('Yesterday, upon the stair, / I met a man who wasn't there...'). We watched them perform the pieces at school, very proudly.
Then 'Antagonish" popped up on the news yesterday, in a report about a minister who has been causing trouble in the Home Office. So random and yet unsurprising. Once again, poetry captured a truth pithily and beautifully.
And now my daughter, in later life, will be able to call on those words too. A gift for her.
[But I’ll still buy her an Easter Egg because Mrs B and I love her to pieces. She deserves some chocolate too. For being daddy’s angel, not because she’s learnt some Kipling!]
image credit: Steve Johnson
The mini-B’s have been asked in school to choose and perform a poem off by heart, and while normally I feel quite anti the idea of homework in general (on the grounds that they are only six and have a full-on enough day anyway, at school between the hours of 8.45 and 3.30), this task struck me as a good thing.
I soon found myself pondering the subject of poetry this week. Well, I say ‘pondering’ but it was probably more like ‘chasing a sequence of dubiously related thoughts around my brain like a hamster with a limp on a wheel, while bellowing at the mini-B’s to stop throwing lego at each other and get into the bath’.
At any rate, what remained was the question of why poetry is important to me.
I still remember most of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. I was forced (with much kicking and screaming) to learn a few during primary school.
‘I guess you think you know this story.
You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.’ (from Cinderella)
Reading those lines now brings back so vividly not only the immediate context of the poems, but also a crazily intense galaxy of related people, places and associations – links that makes the words like little jewels. I suppose younger brains, with their pinhole perspectives, are all about this kind of emotional immediacy, rather than the wider view.
Whatever the explanation, those poems are with me for good.
And I feel quite strongly that – unlike most of the stuff that gets poured into our ears between the ages of 5 and 11 – poetry is actually well-worth learning in primary school – squirreling away something precious that will stay with you into the future.
Having followed that train of thought to its natural conclusion (ie ‘what was I thinking again?’), I found myself unable to explain to two grumpy mini-B’s (who wanted to play with the ipad) (a) what poems actually are and (b) why ‘Go away bottom-head’ (and the garbled, giggly lines that follow) shouldn’t also count as a poem worth learning by rote.
image credit: Steve Johnson