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).

Leonels and Fletchers

Real Madrid recently bought a young footballer called Leonel who’s being talked up as the ‘next Lionel Messi’ (non-sports fans: he was FIFA World Footballer of the Year in 2009 and 2010). Leonel Angel Coira is just seven years old though. The same story crops up every so often: last season Arsenal snapped up Fletcher Toll, their ‘new David Beckham’….for their under-7 side. These signings always come in for the same criticism, that six or seven is just too early to guess someone’s adult potential. An interesting question to ask is whether you can make a world-class footballer from a seven-year-old, rather than just find a potential star. Does training at Real Madrid aged seven really provide more opportunities to improve than playing in the street?

Think about reading instead. An Oxford-based charity called Reading Quest works with six- and seven-year old primary school students who make a bad start with reading English (perhaps they have learning difficulties, or don’t speak English at home). About one in five students leave school unable to read confidently, and this creates problems later down the line. So Reading Quest offers these students a six-week series of one-on-one sessions to make up the gap, and tries to involve parents more in their children’s education. I’ve seen their tutors at work, and was impressed by how each lesson was tailored to that particular student, how the tutor always checked that the children followed what was happening, and that the children were encouraged to find reading enjoyable, so that they’d have the confidence, interest and strategies to make improvements after the sessions were over.

I was reminded of Reading Quest at the weekend when I met up with a school-friend who’s now a primary school teacher, and co-ordinates literary teaching at his school. He gave me a lovely comparable example of teaching children to paint using watercolour. You can spend half an hour with one child, showing him or her how to hold a brush and mix paints and that person will never forget how to do it. Or you could teach a class of thirty for an hour, and at the end no-one has properly learnt that skill. Now I know why my recorder classes at school sounded so terrible.

I mentioned to him that the previous week I’d been speaking to some Teach First graduates at a party in Kilburn, who teach at secondary schools and all agreed that engrained inequalities in educational achievement were already in place before Year Seven (age twelve). Those students who didn’t have basic skills in Maths and English couldn’t catch everything in their language and science lessons, and just fall further and further behind those high-fliers who’ve enjoyed lots of individual attention and so are better at learning. Children whose parents read stories to them when they were five, and received individual attention from empathic adults at school and home are likely to do better later on. These Kilburn teachers felt strongly that debate about access to universities needs to look much further back than A-Level grades.

For Leonels and Fletchers who play a team sport where (I imagine) you just need to play lots of football and keep being told to improve, I doubt it makes that much difference whether you’re playing for Real Madrid youth teams or in the local park. Talent will shine through. But one reason it’s different for school children at that age is that it matters whether you build up basic skills, like reading, that allow you to become an independent learner, gain more skills later on and hold some kind of interest in what you’re doing. And personalized attention probably plays an important role in acquiring these skills.

Menand’s Second Theory

My brother directed me to a recent article by Louis Menand (see here for a good video interview) in The New Yorker about college education in the States. Menand recalls an occasion that a student asked him: ‘Why did I have to buy this book?’ He outlines three possible responses, which are based on three theories about university education. Theory 1 is that a degree is one big examination that allows society to determine who its smartest people are:

[P]icking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence involves many attributes that can’t be captured in a one-time assessment, like an I.Q. test. There is no intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash. An intelligent person is open-minded, an outside-the-box thinker, an effective communicator, is prudent, self-critical, consistent, and so on. These are not qualities readily subject to measurement.

Theory 3 is even more utilitarian. It states that modern society requires more people to have specialized skills, and so students need to study longer to gain the abilities and knowledge necessary to become a doctor or lawyer or engineer. So universities are for vocational training. This doesn’t offer a good answer to the question about buying books! Like Theory 1, however, Theory 3 describes aspects of education in general, as well as university teaching.

Menand’s second theory—and he calls himself ‘a theory 2 person’—is that education is democratic. The answer to the book-buying question is:

“You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” This reflects a different theory of college, a theory that runs like this: In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

So education is a training for life, as well as for a future career. I’m also a ‘theory 2 person’ in that I’m a specialist in literature, and literary studies are particularly helpful for developing these skills.

I also believe that different subjects teach different types of aptitudes and sensibilities. Theories 1, 2 and 3 isolate different contributions that education makes to society. Each academic subject and specialty teaches an approach to the world, and how to contribute to society. There’s a need to train people for their careers, but a liberal society also produces talented individuals who are well-informed about our past, have a good understanding of a foreign culture, know how to analyze the written word, and so on. Literature only starts looking like a weak link once you start insisting that the vocational Theory 3 is the only theory that matters. Society as a whole benefits from having individuals trained to a high level in many different areas.

Social R&D

My post on the New College of the Humanities had far more readers than usual, and I imagine that some of them found it less worldly than viewpoints expressed on other blogs. Going easy on the bile, I instead worried about whether the college would teach the ‘right kind’ of English degree—one that balanced intuitive and critical reasoning.

It wasn’t written in spite of social considerations, though. How English is taught is wholly connected with questions about how the humanities contribute in the public and private spheres. As many have pointed out, the New College of Humanities threatens to drag subjects like English literature further towards privatization, rather than protect its place in public life (i.e. in state-funded schools and universities). Removing humanities research and teaching to the private sphere would probably hurt accessibility badly (I don’t know enough about the American system to comment much on this). It would not only suggest that humanities have no industrial or economic benefits to society—incorrect, given the still-prestigious education system in the UK—but would disparage the humanities’ contribution to quality of life in general. It would argue, for example, that there is little value in training specialists in language and reading within a highly literate culture.

So this follow-up post unpacks the social dimension of my argument a little. Subjects like English teach analytical skills that are valuable in a whole range of careers; they also nurture creativity, which has social and economic benefits that are often underplayed by comparison. I write ‘social’ because there’s need for continual remodelling of our preconceptions about such life issues as health and how we interact with people who aren’t like us (see my thoughts on ‘Libraries and the NHS’ for an example). Put another way, there’s a need for some Research and Development work on aspects of human experience because society and the world around us are always changing. We need people who play around, explore, experiment with different ways of thinking, and draw on how people have spoken and written about each other in the past to find ideas that will promote a healthy society in the present. This doesn’t mean that English professors should intervene directly on social affairs (and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t). A liberal democracy does, however, have a use for people who spend time thinking freshly about where our ideas come from and how we can express them. These people can inspire others to question their assumptions, and to come up with alternative descriptions of how society can work—ones that are more thorough and comprehensive than a simple term like ‘Big Society’ allows taken alone.

That R&D metaphor was loaned from Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. I attended a lecture she gave yesterday in which she argued that children are the R&D department of the human race, and adults are the publicity and marketing people. She means that children are better at exploring unusual possibilities than adults, but less good at exploiting them. This intellectual play generates approaches that might otherwise never appear, and from them come methods and approaches that adults start adopting too and which come to benefit the human species as a whole. Extended immaturity is something distinctive to humans—it makes us smart, and Gopnik made the playful analogy that studying and working in ideal research conditions (e.g. Oxford) could extend that development indefinitely.

Academia, like childhood, is a natural home for intellectual flexibility, adaptability, and challenges to the ways mature people see the world. Sometimes new mathematical or zoological or literary insights have a delayed impact on society, and sometimes they remain esoteric: in the long term, however, learning keeps the intellectual reservoirs fresh. Research (and childhood) creates variability and innovation that feeds into otherwise stable societies with their customs and traditions, and means that those societies doesn’t become a North Korea or Turkmenistan. Research needn’t have the end-product always in mind, any more than children should always focus on becoming adults—both children and academics reinvent what it means to be an active adult who engages (socially, culturally, economically) in society. There is a problem about pinning down what research (or a child nibbling on a plastic cup) actually achieves, but this doesn’t diminish its contribution. If the British education system promoted these aims it would fulfil the Archbishop of Canterbury’s desire (expressed in this week’s New Statesman) for ‘a long term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy’.

This social role for the humanities in academia becomes something sinister if certain sections of society are excluded from the conversation–it’d be positively harmful if it’s just the rich and privately-educated who are driving it. Public support encourages creativity and vibrant, diverse participation in the arts. Experimentation in the humanities and arts equips more people to reassess how they relate to each other and the world with respect and tolerance. I stress that this is a general goal of education, not restricted to certain subjects. Education in natural and social sciences clearly plays an important part in this too, but there seems more need to clarify the part that the humanities play in all this. And if you’ve gained anything from this post, then thank the UK government, who are funding my academic research and so allowing me to develop and promote my perspective.

Prospective English Concentrators

I was speaking to a Professor of English at Harvard last week about literary studies. He talked about how the humanities teach us self-knowledge, as opposed to science studying the objective world. He spoke about the place of literary studies in a general education, and the value of learning to appreciate great works.

This discussion set me wondering about English at Harvard, so I went over to the department’s website and found a page intended for ‘Prospective English Concentrators’. My sketchy idea of Harvard’s intellectual principles is that it is influenced by pragmatism, which stresses knowledge gained through action in the everyday world rather than unworldly, abstract ideas. You would expect the Harvard department to emphasize method and practice of literary interpretation, and sure enough, the department chair talks about gaining skills to discover how we communicate and generate meaning in language:

‘We read literary texts because literature is where the meanings are. So how do we get at those meanings? We teach students what imaginative works mean, by teaching how they mean, by teaching how meaning is embedded in form. Accordingly, we transmit the skills of interpretation.’

What about other departments? Well, the page directed at potential undergraduates at the Oxford English Faculty talks more about ‘getting to know’ our cultural heritage:

‘You will get to know the writings of particular authors, movements, and periods in great detail and develop your own interests in English literature and language – interests that we hope will remain with you for the rest of your life. This kind of study affords a unique way of appreciating the cultural history of England and other countries in which English has been a major literary medium.
An English degree will equip you with analytical and writing skills that are readily transferable into many other situations and many professions.’

Finally, I jumped across to the Cambridge English Faculty:

‘The Cambridge English Tripos [i.e. degree] has the following aims, among others: to stimulate in its students original thinking and critical habits of mind; to develop the ability to construct an argument, both oral and written; to foster an unusual sensitivity to language; to provide a broad knowledge of the development of English literature which will enable students to understand how writers work within and against literary traditions; to create awareness of the historical dimension of literary works; and to provide a comparative dimension for the study of literature in English, by study of literature in other languages, or of philosophical works which handle ideas in a non-literary mode.
All students of English acquire knowledge that enriches their lives forever.’

You could find equally fine descriptions of studying English at other British universities like York, Manchester, Queen Mary or Glasgow. The reason I pick on Oxbridge here is partly because that’s where my experience is, and partly because they have large departments that are generally thought to have distinctive principles of studying literature (not that other departments don’t): Cambridge is traditionally associated with close reading and ‘practical criticism’, while Oxford concentrates on historical fact and what literature teaches us about the world (i.e., is more scientific). This contrast is useful when thinking about the research output of different universities. But in these descriptions there is more agreement than disagreement about literary studies: reading and arguing closely, gaining a life-enhancing skill using in the working world and learning about English-language culture are common to each. This makes for a challenging undergraduate course, but it is what is going in school English lessons too. Academic research helps support these activities.

One lesson from all this is not to exaggerate differences between institutions. Although one department may specialize in a particular approach, the subject remains basically the same. Debates within the subject don’t mean that the discipline itself is on uncertain ground: studying English at school or university makes you better equipped to assess and appreciate language and culture.