Poetry by Heart

The only time that I’ve been encouraged to memorize poetry was for an individual verse speaking competition at secondary school. I learnt short poems like William Blake’s ‘Poison Tree‘ and Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ by heart, and found it more enjoyable than daunting. I’ve not thought much about memorizing poetry since, except that it feels a very traditional way to study poetry: I was learning poems as an extra-curricular activity, not in an English lesson.

Recently I’ve come to realize that it’s an extremely valuable activity if practiced properly. I don’t much care to become a walking minstrel, or to use it to improve mental agility, or to chuck away my mp3 player or the smartphone I don’t own because I have the music of poetry running round my head. I’m not interested in it for the same reason that the author of this essay called ‘Got Poetry?‘ is. No, memorizing poetry fascinates me because it forces you to meet a poem on its own terms: to hear it well, read it several times, understand its structure, internalize its rhythms, and empathize with the speaker.

I’ve occasionally said, somewhat flippantly, that my Cambridge English degree taught me everything apart from how to read at the right speed. I can spend an hour poring over a single poem, and I can leaf through whole books to extract just the quotation I think I want. But it’s only by pausing to absorb poems that a poem begins to radiate before me, and this sensitivity is trained by having it echo in my skull. Memorization helps me produce those conditions, even if I don’t spend long enough with it to be able to recite it a few days later.

This old technique is also teaching me how poetry is written. Great poets have usually read, studied and imitated previous great poets. By insisting on originality and resisting disciplined study of poetry’s music, I believe—and my conservatism surprises me—we miss out on how humans developed advanced language skills. We learn language through imitating our parents, and perhaps we learn poetry through imitating our literary forebears.

Memory is particularly associated with poetry, rather than any other form of writing. Its repetitions and subtle connections make it easier to memorize. Indeed, one theory goes that poetry originated as mnemonic writing: its patterns helped people to remember lists, stories, religious doctrine and other information. Research has shown that music and memory are associated.

You gain something by learning one poem that you don’t by casting eyes over six poems by the same poet. The memory arts activate something in the mind. Memorization may seem daunting or simply antiquated given modern-day technological advances, but even in small amounts I find it cultivates and strengthens my mental circuitry. Poets.org suggests some starting points if you feel inspired to memorize a poem.

A Student’s Thesaurus

Gabriella Gruder-Poni writes about her experiences as a PGCE (i.e. trainee) teacher in English in an article called ‘The Reader Gets Angry‘. She describes the repeated opposition she encountered from fellow teachers when attempting to teach students about areas of knowledge unknown or without immediate to relevance to them. Gabriella becomes isolated as she tries to introduce new material to her students: for example, another teacher criticizes her for mentioning Leonardo da Vinci on a worksheet because a student ‘won’t have heard of the 1500s or of Leonardo’.

Gabriella concludes that her state school suffered from a ‘poisonous combination of classism and anti-intellectualism’. The teachers assumed students wouldn’t or couldn’t grasp anything not already familiar to them. Topicality rules. I’ve heard similar stories from state-school teachers in English and other subjects who speak warmly of teaching, but feel disillusioned at schools as learning environments. I’ve been told several times that students aren’t challenged or appreciated as individuals. Gabriella writes that:

I eventually came to suspect that the real reason for the banishment from the classroom of anything that smacked of culture was the lack of interest not among students but among teachers. For the students, especially the younger ones, regularly showed themselves to be curious about subjects other than gadgets and celebrities, giving the lie to the teachers’ assertions that times past and distant places were ‘inappropriate’ material for lessons.

I’ve written before that I don’t think Shakespeare is for everyone, but I’m still very sympathetic to Gabriella’s experiences. I admire Gabriella’s stand on seeking to develop students’ curiosity for new ideas. I’m struck by how the teachers she encountered took relevance and familiarity to be synonymous: a subject is relevant if the student is already familiar with it. So ‘gadgets and celebrities’ are in, and other cultures, other ways of thinking are out. This seems a logical fallacy. There are always topics that are unfamiliar but have hidden relevance. I believe that it’s fundamentally a good thing to reach out to something new and seek to understand it because the process fosters tolerance, open-mindedness and curiosity. ‘Relevance’ becomes an issue when deciding which new topics to teach: that’s why British students tend (if they learn any language) to learn French or German, not Malay or Sanskrit, though all of these languages would bring pedagogical benefits to all students. One reason that Shakespeare is still read so often and still placed on school curricula is that for centuries people have empathized with the basic sense of humanity that radiates from his works, and still do.

Her frustration with vocabulary teaching is exemplary. Having read her article in another source (a college alumni magazine), I know that the series that enraged Mr F— is called Wordly Wise, which looks like a reliable method to learning new words. The main arguments against learning complicated, polysyllabic vocabulary is that it’s unfamiliar and irrelevant: the students won’t know the words, and they don’t need to know them. You might well ask why students who’ll never use or hear words like ‘spurious’, ‘reiterate’ or ‘apocryphal’ should be made to learn them. These words are just used to sound smart, right? Here’s Gabriella again:

‘They’ll never need those words’, never need words like ‘assail’, ‘assimilate’, ‘mishap’ or ‘ostentatious’. Why not? Didn’t he expect them to read and write? I began to suspect that my students’ woeful ignorance might be a consequence of attitudes like those of Mr. F—.

She’s right that if you don’t expose students to such vocabulary at school, then they’re less likely to encounter more texts that use them and so remain with the basic literacy skills to read, say, a tabloid newspaper but not much else.

There’s also an important argument to make about the larger purpose of language acquisition and usage. We don’t just learn difficult words so that we can write well: it’s usually best, as George Orwell tells us, to use the fewest and simplest words possible. But sometimes the simplest word will be ‘assimilate’ or ‘reiterate’. That’s because we use language to describe the world and make distinctions. ‘Red’, ‘yellow’, ‘green’ and ‘blue’ articulate primary colours that we see, but there’s a whole wide spectrum out there: vermillion, teal, cyan, magenta and many many others (and even more if we count Dulux neologisms like ‘Indian Ivy’ and ‘Summer Surprise’). There are many other word spectrums. ‘Gesticulate’ has a different shade of meaning to ‘point’, ‘waggle’, ‘gesture’ or ‘wave’. There’s an important moral difference between choosing the words ‘catastrophe’, ‘disaster’, ‘screw up’, ‘accident’, ‘error’, and ‘mishap’. I wouldn’t use the same word to describe losing £5 that I would to describe famine, just as I wouldn’t think that starvation and a lost takeaway meal are misfortunes of a similar scale.

A thesaurus (from a Latin word meaning ‘treasury, store-house’) helps a writer to locate just the right word in a given spectrum. Choosing words requires sensitivity and attention: just the sort of skills you learn by studying English, listening for different connotations and learning advanced vocabulary. Gabriella reports that she was scolded for overemphasizing dictionaries: they should apparently ‘only be used a last resort’. In fact, I think the impulse to look up any word you’re not sure about is one of the best habits you can learn from studying English. But if you suffer a ‘lack of faith in words’, as Gabriella puts it, then you’re not likely to appreciate the cognitive skills and mental agility to be learnt from studying new words and new literature.

Investigating Omeros

I helped out earlier at an ‘Investigating Options’ outreach day for Year 11 students (15 and 16 year-olds). The general aim was to help students make informed choices about their education post-GCSE and A-Level, so the thrust of my session was to think about ways that studying English in sixth form and at university differs from GCSE English. My not-very-original theme was the value of fostering a spirit of inquiry and curiosity.

My opening unastonishing point was that as I’ve taken more advanced qualifications in literature, I’ve devoted more and more time in the day to studying it until it’s become a career choice linked to my sense of identity. When you continue to study a subject, you gain breadth and depth of knowledge. To illustrate ‘breadth’ I first asked the students when the first book was printed in English (Raoul Lefèvre’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, trans. by William Caxton (Bruges: William Caxton, c. 1473), and to come up with a list of the earliest works of literature. Suggestions included the Bible, Greeks, Egyptians, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, and I added Beowulf which was written down in Old English before the second millenium, and a few others. I passed on the good advice I once received when applying to university, that I should create a timeline of writers and fill in gaps where possible. English literature doesn’t start with Jane Austen or Shakespeare.

As you accumulate more knowledge of Western literary tradition, I added, you understand better how writers are working within that tradition. This led into my focus on ‘depth’, or close reading. I took a passage from Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), and asked the students to tell me five things they could tell me about it, and five things they couldn’t. I spent much longer asking the students for their questions. The students generally came up with interpretative problems, some of which would have made great starting points for essays, like ‘Why is Helen like a shadow?’ and ‘Why are Achille and Hector fighting over a bailing tin?’.

It also wasn’t a bad way to encourage students to participate, since if a student said ‘I don’t know’ I could ask them what they didn’t know. I encouraged them to ask questions about who the author was, where the poem was set, what came before and after this section, how the form works, what did difficult words like ‘manchineel’ (a poisonous evergreen Caribbean tree) mean and so on, and showed how these questions were all entry points to understanding the poem.

I punctuated the discussion with audio clips from a BBC World Book Club programme. When reading the passage we discussed(at 3.55-5.32 in the interview), Walcott didn’t follow the stanza breaks precisely, or even read it like ‘poetry’. In the same interview (c.16.33-17.35), Walcott remarks that a reader once told him that when reading Omeros he found himself forgetting that he was reading poetry, which made Walcott think ‘Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere’. It’s a viewpoint consistent with his loose adoption of Dante’s terza rima.

In another clip (6.12-8.00) Walcott talks about the poem’s relationship to Homer’s Iliad as being evocative and associative only, which pulls us back from taking Homer as the key to the poem. I took this idea to make the larger point that there’s no solution to the poem, just a series of encounters between readers and the poem, where we bring our own experiences and insights, and have our own questions to ask. Another student asked how the poem could be so complex, to which I replied that its difficulty arises—as so often in great literature—from small incidents in which the poet perceives deeper resonances and significance that become implicated in autobiography, colonialism, dispossession and other abstract themes.

If I’d attended a class like this one when I’d been in Year 11, I wouldn’t have spoken up much, but was probably too strong-willed to have recognized that collaboration in classes—through questioning, seeking answers from others, developing arguments—is important not just for impressing at A-Level or university, but in any pursuit of what’s true and real. It reminded me of a podcast I’d just heard in which a philosopher called Dan Sperber argued that reason’s primary function is to facilitate collaboration between strangers, and help social division of cognitive labour. By ourselves, reasoning is often rationalizing to justify our own biases, but alongside others, reason provides a basis to hear what someone says and investigate it further. Reasoning doesn’t lead us all to the same answer, but it does encourage us to cooperate and reach an agreed answer through consensus. It creates a common standard by which people can develop and question a line of enquiry pursued by others.

Academic study in general encourages such collaboration, in Britain particularly post-GCSE, where students often learn through classes and seminars. From a literary perspective, Sperber’s brief discussion immediately raised further questions about the role of intuition, who we should collaborate with, how far we should engage with strangers to pursue truth, whether it prohibits discussion if an interlocutor has little concept of reason, and if anything is lost by communicating an argument using reason.

The last question I was asked concerned libraries, to which I answered that as your studies become more advanced you don’t just use public and school libraries, you start to access repositories of knowledge where you encounter everything ever written about a topic. When applying to university, I was encouraged to take a trip to a university library (which I didn’t). As a graduate student, I’m now learning how to master topics quickly through literature reviews. As I gain knowledge in a subject, I become more critically aware of where my information comes from, and hopefully more independent too (though wisdom is another matter).

Thinking about Teapots

I spoke at a humanities outreach day for Year 9 students in Oxford last week. My question was ‘How is English different from Maths?’, and my answer was that Maths is more about learning systems of thought that make things seem simpler, whereas in English you more often learn to ask new questions about the world, and so make things seem more complicated. I also argued that in humanities subjects you always deal with human culture and the world around us, but in maths you start with abstract ideas, then apply them to particular situations. Yes, there are lots of interesting exceptions here—but I stuck to making this point to the audience with three examples.

First, I showed that learning English requires more than mastering rules and methods. Spelling bees test this kind of knowledge, but spelling champs don’t necessarily make amazing English language and literature students. It takes more life experience and exposure to culture to thrive at English, and I suggested that this is why you hear of Maths prodigies but not English prodigies. Point Two was an exercise in appreciating historicity (historical quality or character). I showed the audience a series of BBC homepages from 2011, 2008, 2004, 2001, 1997, and finally the first BBC homepage from 21st December 1996. My aim here was to provoke questions about how a webpage is specific to one moment in time. What methods are being used to attract our attention? How different will the webpage be in fifteen years’ time? Would someone looking at the website in 500 years’ time conclude that we’re weather obsessed given that the central box on the current homepage (i.e. in July 2011) shows the weather forecast—and would our futuristic friend be correct?

Then I looked at different ways to think about teapots. I showed the students the following complete poem by the American poet Samuel Menashe (the recordings on the linked page are great):

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout.

With a little bit of critical jiggery-pokery (e.g. note that the letters ‘p-o-t’ appear three times), I suggested that the poem makes you think again about something so simple as a teapot, about its existence, and what is fulfilling about being ‘ful-filled’. The physical object of the teapot is essential to the poem, just as in English studies generally you can’t get away from lived experience, whether it’s society, the media, different cultures or what’s on your breakfast table. These thoughts are expressed using extremely controlled use of language (if you think this poem is absurdly simple, try writing another). In its odd little way the poem challenges common sense.

I drew a contrast with a mathematician who could tell you about the teapot’s volume or rate of cooling by applying analytical techniques to the object. And I asked a quick-witted philosopher who gave a presentation later about how a philosopher might think about a teapot. In reply he asked us to imagine a moderately warm teapot and two people, one of whom has lived his or her entire life in the Arctic. The teapot would seem very hot to that person, but merely warm to someone else. So does this mean that hot and cold don’t really exist? The teapot was a good example of the different types of question that each subject raises. Maths and science can quantify and suggest practical improvements to how a teapot is used; philosophy asks basic questions about what we do and don’t know, and English…well, English shows you how different people see and think about the teapot, which makes you appreciate how different people look at the world, and use language to express that viewpoint, and so English challenges your established patterns of thinking, and helps you appreciate language, culture and the world around you with fresh eyes and ears.

Erdös Numbers and English

I had brunch yesterday with a secondary-school maths teacher I know. He was telling me about a Hungarian mathematician called Paul Erdös, who was one of the most prolific researchers ever. He had over 1100 papers to his name, most of them as coauthor. Mathematicians have devised something called the ‘Erdös number‘ to describe how many degrees of separation there are between any mathematician and Erdös’s output. So being Paul Erdös gives you an Erdös number of zero, being a coauthor on an Erdös paper gives you an Erdös number of one, working with someone who worked on an Erdös paper is two, and so on. You’ll probably get an Erdös number of eight or better by publishing a maths paper.

My maths-teacher friend is a great believer in collaboration when studying maths. He doesn’t think maths is about solitary geniuses: he likes to see groups of people huddled round a board or table pinging numbers and symbols around (this sounds like a great maths lesson to me). This may seem like another difference between maths and English: people often read books alone, come up with individual interpretations, and can’t work together to find the right answer because there is no right answer. To do well in English exams you need to stand out from the crowd, not join it. And so on.

But English studies would be nothing without collaboration. The humanities are where we learn how different people have lived and thought, and how they interact. Language is communication, and literature is a conversation. Readers and writers have a voice in that conversation, but that voice is always in dialogue, not a soliloquy. Studying literature has taught me, and many others, that my thoughts have all been had before. Original thoughts only happen because I’ve not read enough. My life is unique–no-one’s lived exactly the same life as I had–but my reflections on what it means to be human are nothing new. So I learn where I fit in, and discussion is vital to that. This means that English lessons, essays and exam scripts will do well to involve lively exchanges of ideas too.

Renaissance thinkers looking back to classical antiquity knew this, and so did English modernists (like T.S. Eliot). We may not have Erdös numbers in the humanities, but there is not much space for lone geniuses either. Conferences, seminars and research projects show collaboration in action in humanities research (there are scholars who team up too). As the questions we’re asking as researchers become more complicated and specialized, team-work is going to become more and more necessary (Jonah Lehrer has written a good piece about solitary scientists– I think his point will become relevant for the humanities over time too). We can make progress in learning about history, language and human experience, but collaboration also helps us learn about our limitations, about what we can’t know.




Reading Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Adultery’ and ‘Small Female Skull’

My cousin Alice recently asked for my opinion on a couple of Carol Ann Duffy poems she’s studying for her AS English literature. I had a quiet thirty minutes and was feeling creative, so I replied to her with the following little commentaries.

It’s a claustrophobic, intense and controlled poem. It has short stanzas and sentences, with not a word wasted. Words and objects keep twisting meaning: polo mints, faces, ‘darling’ all take on a darker meaning (it’s as if the whole poem is written with ‘dark glasses’). ‘Commuting’ seems a telling choice of word: exchanging things but ending up worse off (‘words’ into ‘bile’), while also trying to reduce guilt (‘commute a sentence’). The speaker’s point of view isn’t necessarily simple: how do we know (do we know?) that the speaker is female? Is she recollecting clues that she missed, or creating an imagined situation (is there any difference for us as readers)? Is she being assertive or defensive? ‘The same thing twice’ twice is uncomfortable and damning, but can be heard as mournful or angry, as can most of the poem. Talk of ‘abstract nouns’ indicates the tension between rationalising the situation (i.e. using a term like ‘abstract noun’), but having deep feelings invested it (i.e., using this particular abstract noun). Same with ‘commuting’. Even as the objects and well-chosen words shift meaning in the poem, ‘you’re a bastard’ has only one meaning though….

Small Female Skull
The poem felt like a comic memento mori (memory of death) poem. The skull certainly seems like a memento of some sort. Why is it being playfully ‘balanced’ –is it the speaker’s head, or something not noticed before (both of which are surprising)? And why does the scene take place in a toilet? It may make the reader take the poem less seriously, but the toilet is also a place where people think about the human body and its needs. Skulls don’t have scars, so the speaker must be making an association with something else painful in the third stanza– ‘shattering’ could apply to skulls again, and ‘braille’ is one of several eye-images in the poem. So the poem isn’t just a warning to the reader, a memento: it provokes memories in the speaker as well as containing them. The poem doesn’t just describe an object, but describes a particular situation in which that object exists, as seen through a pair of eyes. As in ‘Adultery’ the poem is a space where objects change meaning as the speaker writes about it.

So both poems, as I saw it, show how language doesn’t just describe objects, but contains the feelings and thoughts of the person using it. My closing tip was that if she had to chose one to write about, then I’d recommend going for the one she finds more difficult, because it could give her more to write about.

These little pieces do several things, such as asking lots of questions that pick at some of the poems’ complexities, explaining and trying to understand my reaction to reading the poems, writing about how the language and the speaker’s viewpoint shape meaning, and trying to unravel difficult points in both poems. The final task was to write about this clearly and concisely. In short, I tried to think critically about the poems and my reaction to them. The poems are like objects that I inspect and play with in my hands, all the time looking to sharpen my judgement and sensitivity.