Monday, March 16, 2015

Everything worthwhile I know I learned by heart

Every week there's a story on the news agenda which is so stupid you just know it's not worth finding out about. Last week there was something about a kitchen. Don't go any further. I don't wish to know.

This week there are poets arguing about the value of kids learning things by heart. I'm sure poets aren't stupid enough to say that this is ever a bad idea. I'm equally sure there are hacks capable or twisting their words to make it look as though they did. And I'm certain the BBC will have staged one of those sham debates where somebody who's in favour of fresh air has been put up against somebody who thinks it's bad for you.

I took a little notice of this because recently I've tried to teach myself to learn a few bits of Shakespeare off by heart. I used to be able to do this when I was young and I was interested to see if I still could, particularly now that Google's causing my mental muscles to atrophy.

I also did it as an alternative to reading while on the tube or listening to music while out walking. I'm enjoying the process. I'll be the one sitting opposite you staring into space with lips barely moving, stopping occasionally to check the lines on my phone.

Everything worthwhile I know I learned by heart.


  1. Why is it SO much easier to remember songs, however long, than poems or scripts? There are entire LPs I know by heart, whereas remembering a poem that lasted 45 minutes would be nigh impossible.

  2. Marvell, Villon, Lincoln, Dylan, Cohen, Curtis, all available at the drop of an emotion.

  3. Having recently put a tune to Simon Armitage's 'About His Person' I'm loving the idea of leaning poetry by rote. It puts me in mind of those white vans you often see - 'stop me for a quotation'.

  4. Anonymous1:44 pm

    Melody aims memory. True, poetry has scansion, but not melody. Songs also often have much more emotional impact: the poems you do remember will tend to be the ones that hit you in the gut.

    Rap is an interesting midpoint, typically having much more scansion than melody, but try memorising a rap you haven't heard (say, by Googling the lyrics) compared to one you learn by hearing.

    I'd also wager the entire LPs you know, you'll have listened to hundreds or perhaps thousands of times. The same can't be said of very many poems, particularly 45-minute ones... although there's probably a close analogue with film scripts: there's a fair few Star Wars fans who can do you line-by-line quotage, perhaps because of repeated watching and emotional investment.

  5. Poems don't need melody, and can be hard to fit to one. With a few notable exceptions poets make lousy lyricists and songwriters are awful poets. When some says, 'Their lyrics are pure poetry', what they usually mean is that the writer has used big emotional words, like 'God', 'Love', 'Heart' and so on. The technical business of syllable by syllable poetry provides its own melody and is pretty much impossible to add to by putting to a pretty tune.

  6. I haven't heard Elvis Costello's 1979 album 'Armed Forces' for thirty-five years but I could still make a good fist of singing along to most of the words.

    How and why can we remember these things after such a time? I expect age, pleasure and, what else but, a surfeit of endorphins help in impressing lyrics into our soft heads.

  7. for me, in everyday conversation, rather than "serious analytical debate", the phrase, “Pure Poetry” is simply an abstract. Much as “Pure Artistry,” or “It’s beautiful,” or “It’s Magic,” or, well fill in the blanks.

    Kipling wrote some pretty poems. Well I think so. Check out "Last Of The Light Brigade, for example.

  8. The source of some discontent in a previous relationship.
    "How can you know so many song lyrics and still forget the f*cking milk?"

    I don't know that it is just music that helps. It's been years - almost 30, in fact - since I last picked up a Latin text book, or a German one. I can still recite all declensions for Latin nouns, and similarly for the use of die/das in German.

  9. Anonymous2:42 pm

    Simon: Did you learn Latin declension by enforced rote? Not to belittle the effect, but I'm sure memory is helped by being *forced* to learn (unlike most poetry, songs and scripts). I can still cite the opening lines of a French poem I had to learn for school in 1985, but, as you imply, I can quite easily forget why I've gone into a certain room...

  10. Yes, we did. a,a,am,ae,ae,a. Chant your little heads off.

    I'm not sure it's that dissimlar to how I knew, and could recite 'Born To Run' at the age of nine because Dad played, and played and played it.