Poetry by heart in primary school?

I agreed when Peter Hitchens said on Question Time last night that it was a wonderful thing to have beautiful poems and lines of poetry in one’s head. But it’s a big jump from feeling that to supporting the idea of forcing all primary school children to learn poetry by heart.

Hitchens followed his eloquent description of what knowing poems can give us with a surly expression of pity for those who don’t know any, because their hearts are deserts (I can’t remember his exact words but I don’t think I’m misrepresenting his essential meaning). However, comparing his restless anger with the relaxed good humour of some of the other panellists made it hard not to feel that his heart was more of a desert than theirs. I thought of Yeats describing Maude Gonne, “the loveliest woman born / Out of the mouth of plenty’s horn”, as having “bartered that horn and every good / By quiet natures understood / For an old bellows full of angry wind”.

My point isn’t to attack Hitchens personally but to attack the narrowness and combativeness of his position.

There are a couple of lines in Pound’s Pisan Cantos that I think are relevant:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross.

 Once read never forgotten. They’ve been coming back to me for over thirty-five years because they say something important in a concise and memorable way.

Two key words are “thou” and “lovest”. Poems awaken us to a life outside ourselves, but they do so by sparking real emotional, imaginative and aesthetic responses in us as individuals.

We all know that syllabus-enforced rote learning can be mechanical and dull, associated with nothing more positive than competitiveness or a fear of failure and shame. No doubt it sometimes has to be done, but it shouldn’t be done with with poetry. A teacher who forces you to learn lines without kindling that spark of love for them will probably be giving you a painful and pointless experience and may well be putting you off poetry forever.  One who makes the process fun and succeeds in making you love a particular piece of poetry is enriching you for the rest of your life, in just the way Gove and Hitchens want.

But of course it isn’t even as simple as that. On the one hand, not all teachers are particularly well equipped for communicating a love of verse and, on the other, however good a teacher’s efforts, not all their pupils will love any poetry. Different people love different things. What matters is that they should love something. And those who do love poetry won’t all love the same poems.

In the end it all comes back to the sensitivity and skill of particular teachers faced with particular classes, using their judgement to give as many of their pupils as possible the best that they have it in them to give and the pupils to receive.

2 Responses to “Poetry by heart in primary school?”

  1. Kevin said:

    Jul 12, 12 at 10:27 pm

    I read somewhere that people in the 19th c had hymns by heart and would sing them out loud as they went about their day. It would be interesting to know if more people memorized poetry then than now, as there must be many more people exposed to it now; the take-up rate, however, is dismal in the face of all the easy substitutes, ie pop music. Very good blog. Thanks.

  2. edmund said:

    Jul 13, 12 at 8:17 am

    Yes indeed – many children and adults will absorb poems and songs like sponges if saying or singing them is fun or if they’re moving. Enthusiastic teachers can do a lot to make them fun for a good many of their pupils too. But I think a lot of that kind of learning goes on outside the classroom. I’m very impressed by how many popsongs or rap pieces some youngsters know and how much they get out of them. I think they’re one of the places where popular poetry is very much alive and kicking, though I’m not a follower personally.
    One of the things about hymns is that some of them have tunes that are lovely and easy for most people to sing, and of course they can be very moving. It’s easy to feel how workfolk on 19th century farms could have had their spirits lifted by them.
    Thank you for your comment, Kevin.


Leave a Reply