On memorising poetry

In May 2015, novelist and essayist Andrea Goldsmith delivered the Ray Mathew Lecture at the National Library of Australia. (Both the audio and a transcript of the lecture, ‘Private Passions, Public Exposure’, are available here.) In the course of the lecture, Goldsmith referred to W. H. Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. The poem is a response to the painting, La Chute d’Icare (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).

La Chute d’Icare (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus)

Auden reflects that the figures in the painting—ploughman, shepherd, fisherman—‘turn away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster’ befalling Icarus. Suffering, suggests the poet, can consume the sufferer (in this case the burning, drowning Icarus), but can leave others undisturbed.

The poem entered Goldsmith’s consciousness ‘in the very early days of the novel that would become, Reunion’ and she decided, ‘for reasons unrelated to the nascent work’, to memorise Auden’s poem. It coincided with a difficult time in her life: ‘my partner, the poet Dorothy Porter, was being treated for cancer and my mother was disappearing into the tunnel of dementia.’ Once Goldsmith had memorised ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, she ‘would lie awake at night, silently reciting it over and over, thereby thwarting other more disturbing and anarchic thoughts’.

The memorisation of poems has largely gone out of fashion. We no longer need verses stored in our memory banks in order to readily access them. We simply key a phrase into a search engine and the sought after words instantly appear. But perhaps the act of memorisation has its own intrinsic and lasting value.

In ‘First Word, a 2014 column for The Canberra Times, retired teacher and Anglican priest Robert Willson describes how he developed the memorising habit. He was reading a book about William Corbet Le Breton (father of socialite and actress Lillie Langtry) when he discovered Le Breton’s practice of daily learning a new poem. Le Breton would write out the poem and repeat it ‘in the odd moments of the day’. Over many years, Willson copied Le Breton’s routine.

What were the benefits of this ‘rewarding mental hobby’? In the ordinary events of life, a line or two from a poem would wriggle into Willson’s consciousness. On his early morning walks, for instance, he would recall lines from John Shaw Neilson’s ‘The Sun Is Up’:

The sun is up and death is far away.
The first hour is the sweetest of the day.

A poem, stored in the mind (and, perhaps, in the heart as well), creates an arc across time and space between poet and reader/rememberer. The common experiences of human life are shared and, in the sharing, another layer of meaning is added. Regardless of the circumstances of their creation, the transmission of lines of poetry sets off sonar pings in another life, at another time.

It was not until long after Goldsmith had finished Reunion that she became aware of the way Auden’s poem had ‘fed into’ her novel—the main characters of her narrative, a quartet of friends, had each turned away ‘quite leisurely’ from the various disasters of their lives. The remembering of a poem pinged not only within Goldsmith’s life, but sounded in the lives of her fictional characters as well.

Links and sources:

  • Private Passions, Public Exposure’, the 2015 Ray Mathew Lecture, by Andrea Goldsmith is available on the website of the National Library of Australia. You can find Goldsmith’s website here.
  • Musée des Beaux Arts‘, by W. H. Auden.
  • Tips for memorising poetry: Nina Kang, in her article ‘The Lost Art of Memorizing Poetry’, for The American Reader, cites several methods for effectively learning poems by heart: copying the lines, visualisation, involving the body physically with the process. But, says Kang, ‘the key ingredient in memorization is time—time to read, re-read, and slowly let your thoughts steep in the words’. (It’s only fair to note that not everyone is convinced of the efficacy of memorising poetry for its own sake. For one not-so-positive viewpoint, see Scottish poet and novelist Jim Murphy’s 2010 blog post ‘Learning Poetry by Heart’.)
  • Places to find poems: if you want to try memorising poetry (or if you are simply after useful poetry websites), here are some good places to start:
    * The Poetry by Heart website begins with Beowulf and progress chronologically. As of August 2015, the list ends with Andrew Motion’s 2014 poem, ‘The Fish in Australia’.
    * For Australian poetry, visit the Australian Poetry Library; for the work of US poets, see Poets.org; and for poetry from the UK, try the Poetry Foundation.
Poems to Learn by Heart

Cover image courtesy of Michael O’Mara Books

* If you prefer your poetry between the covers of a book, see Ana Sampson’s compilation Poems to Learn by Heart (Michael O’Mara Books, 2013). To start a new generation on the path to memorisation, or for the simple pleasure of well-crafted lines, try Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (first published Longmans, Green & Co., 1885; also Penguin Books Australia, 2008).

2 thoughts on “On memorising poetry

  1. Beautifully written, Tessa. Snatches of poems and Shakespeare’s plays come back easily to my mind from school days! Youth is the time to memorise. I’m not much good now, but at times of my life I have read and re-read some poems and extracts from books; eg Mary Gilmore’s ‘Nurse No Long Grief’: ‘Grief builds no barns / Her plough rusts at the door.’ I mainly memorise Bible passages these days.

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  2. Tess a thought provoking read on a quiet Sunday morning. My memories of reciting poetry take me back to my school days. I have never considered memorising poetry since! I memorise key phrases from other media which resonate with where I am at. Sometimes I write them down. One phrase I included in Natalie’s wedding speech.

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