What can you recite by heart? Your times tables? Verb formations? The Lord’s Prayer? Salman Rushdie thinks it should be poetry. Speaking at the Hay Festival, the novelist described memorising poems as a “lost art” that “enriches your relationship with language”. But doesn’t learning poetry by rote make children learn the words but lose the meaning?
Not necessarily, according to David Whitley, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University currently researching poetry and memory. He says that, while some people remember with horror having to recite poems in front of an audience, for many, learning poetry by heart can be “life-enhancing”.
Whitely, whose Poetry and Memory project surveyed almost 500 people, says: “Those who memorised poems had a more personal relationship [with the poem] — they loved it for the sound and meaning, but it also connected with their life currents — people they loved, or a time that was important to them.
“For people who memorise a poem, it becomes a living thing that they connect with — more so than when it is on a page. Learning by heart is often positioned as the opposite of analysis. But for many people who know a number of poems, their understanding grows over time and changes.”
Whitley says that while learning poems was mandatory up until the first world war, and popular in the interwar period, it fell out of fashion in the 50s and 60s, thanks to its association with rote learning. Now teachers tend to be reluctant to embrace the idea of teaching poems by heart, because they are wary it will be standardised and tested. But while learning poems has become less frequent in schools, it has not disappeared.
“One of the interesting things is when [memorising poetry] dropped out of school culture ... it became part of a family culture. Often, there is a father who has a lot of poems, and it becomes part of the family culture that people recite and share . It’s almost a special language.”
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry agrees. She points out that memorising anything, from poems to music, means you always have it with you. “If you learn things by heart, you have something to read in your head. I sometimes have to resort to The Owl and the Pussycat – that’s all I have. But I have learned piano pieces off by heart and it’s like having a record in your body.”
She thinks that memorising poems can also be good for the health of our brains. “The way we ‘grow’ our brains is that we make connections between our brain cells — neural pathways. The more you exercise that network, the more you strengthen it. If you learn things by heart, you get better at it.”