Saturday, 30 July 2016

For and Against Memorizing Poetry





This petition was submitted during the 2010–2015 Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government; the deadline 30 March 2015. At the time is attracted only 366 signatures, despite being widely circulated as a link on social media.

Petition:

End of GCSE English Literature for All, 2017

GCSE English Literature from 2017 will require students to remember between 15 and 18 (depending on exam board) poems in an exam in order to 'closely analyse' them. Signatories ask government to consult with the English teaching community as to whether this is the fairest and most meaningful way of assessing students' understanding and appreciation of poetry. There has been no such consultation on this matter to date.


Meanwhile the learning of poetry for public recitation is increasingly popular. Moving beyond the controversial rote-learning for exams issue, this blog explores some of the advantages and disadvantages of learning poetry for public recitation.

Advantages:

  1. Typically, the student who successfully memorizes a poem will be offered a reward or a prize (often also a bribe). This motivates those who are successful to embark on greater challenges.

  1. Successfully memorizing a poem provides a sense of student competence, achievement and proficiency. An insurmountable obstacle has been overcome.

  1. Accordingly, learning a poem is a form of proficiency that is easy to mark and assess, with clear winners and losers.

  1. This is an opportunity to practise memory techniques, props and systems.

  1. The task involves a high degree of focus, repetition and concentration. These skills are undervalued in contemporary pedagogy.

  1. Rather than simply reading the poem from memory, this exercise affords an opportunity for performance and recitation skills. These express the life of the poem filtered through the idiosyncratic voice of the reciter.

  1. The public speaking is an opportunity to inhabit and express the rhythms and cadences of the poem, using soft and loud voices, and other techniques. This means feeling a poem, rather than just skimming over it on the page. As a result, the reciter gains a deep familiarity with the secrets of a poem, with the hints and undertones that are often missed on the page.

  1. This process affords an insight into the unity between reading and reciting, and between speaking and listening, demonstrating the fundamental inter-connectedness of the message and its delivery as effective communication.

  1. Wit and humour can be introduced by using tongue-twisters as poetic exercises. Or use short comic poems such as limericks or nonsense verse.

  1. Recitations can be collaborative: in this case, each student in a class learns just one line!

  1. Learn how poets provide memory clues by using repetition, assonance, rhythm and rhyme.

  1. This is a useful and deepening insight into the sonic and oral dimension of poetry.

  1. If a poem has been learned then it can be called back into being as you wait for a bus or walk through the countryside.

  1. A learned poem may stay with you for the rest of your life. Its value deepens and glows more brightly as time passes. For adults, there is a glorious joy in the poems that you learned in childhood and youth.

  1. Memorized poems provide touchstones in the mind. Favourite lines that linger in our consciousness become an aesthetic criterion and foundation for critical judgements.

  1. Classical rhetoric afforded a respected place to the arts of memory.

  1. This exercise will support essential speaking, debating and speech-making skills. These skills are essential for effective team-work and leadership roles.

  1. If you want to be a stage actor the arts of memory and recitation and will provide essential training.

  1. The learned memory skills will help you in your career as a singer or performance artist. This will appeal to young people who often express a preference for following the career choices of their idols.

Disadvantages

  1. A high proportion of poems have a textual and on-the-page quality. Since the invention of writing and print, the experience has been one of reading, not reciting. Poets write to be read.

  1. The emphasis on the orality of poetry has an old-fashioned, nostalgic quality. It is Homer rather than Virgil.Our world is essentially prosaic. Would anyone attempt to recite Henry James's Golden Bowl  from memory? (But without doubt it is fascinating to read Walter J. Ong on Orality and Literacy.)

  1. Rote-learning is an exercise based on the nineteenth-century classroom; it values memory and parrot-like repetition over creativity and critical discussion. It is a discipline for obedient and servile citizenship, rather than self-standing, self-aware individuals.

  1. Memorization is arduous and alienating; for the majority of students the outcome of this exercise will be a sense of failure to achieve. The experience of failure will be a scar, and lead to a perpetual resentment against poetry.

  1. Memory skills are over-rated in a world where anything can be looked up and located on the internet in a couple of clicks.

  1. Memorization is like doing all your math calculations by hand, rather than using a calculator.

  1. Exams already offer plenty of opportunity for students to demonstrate their capacity to use their memory. Why add to the anguish? And don't higher level exams value understanding over total recall?

  1. Modern speech making is less literary than that of the classical/humanist past; improvisation is to be preferred to rote learning that will appear forced, artificial and awkward.

  1. Is this really the most effective use of student work time?

     10. Total recall is a kind of slavery. Leave it to robots and to Hollywood fantasy.




Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

(Quibble Academic, 2013)


Further Reading

"Many people in Great Britain and the United States can recall elderly relatives who remembered long stretches of verse learned at school decades earlier, yet most of us were never required to recite in class. Heart Beats is the first book to examine how poetry recitation came to assume a central place in past curricular programs, and to investigate when and why the once-mandatory exercise declined. Telling the story of a lost pedagogical practice and its wide-ranging effects on two sides of the Atlantic, Catherine Robson explores how recitation altered the ordinary people who committed poems to heart, and changed the worlds in which they lived. Heart Beats begins by investigating recitation's progress within British and American public educational systems over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and weighs the factors that influenced which poems were most frequently assigned. Robson then scrutinizes the recitational fortunes of three short works that were once classroom classics: Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca," Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," and Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." To conclude, the book considers W. E. Henley's "Invictus" and Rudyard Kipling's "If--," asking why the idea of the memorized poem arouses such different responses in the United States and Great Britain today. Focusing on vital connections between poems, individuals, and their communities, Heart Beats is an important study of the history and power of memorized poetry." See Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem by Catherine Robson (Princeton University Press 2012)

"What has happened to the lost art of memorising poetry? Why do we no longer feel that it is necessary to know the most enduring, beautiful poems in the English language 'by heart'? In his introduction Ted Hughes explains how we can overcome the problem by using a memory system that becomes easier the more frequently it is practised. The collected 101 poems are both personal favourites and particularly well-suited to the method Hughes demonstrates. Spanning four centuries, ranging from Shakespeare and Keats through to Auden and Heaney, By Heart offers the reader a 'mental gymnasium' in which the memory can be exercised and trained in the most pleasurable way. Some poems will be more of a challenge than others, but all will be treasured once they have become part of the memory bank." By Heart, By Ted Hughes (Faber 2012)

"The ancient Greeks, to whom a trained memory was of vital importance - as it was to everyone before the invention of printing - created an elaborate memory system, based on a technique of impressing 'places' and 'images' on the mind. Inherited and recorded by the Romans, this art of memory passed into the European tradition, to be revived, in occult form, at the Renaissance, and particularly by the strange and remarkable genius, Giordano Bruno. Such is the main theme of Frances Yates's unique and brilliant book, in the course of which she sheds light on such diverse subjects as Dante's Divine Comedy, the form of the Shakespearian theatre and the history of ancient architecture. Aside from its intrinsic fascination, The Art of Memory is an invaluable contribution to aesthetics and psychology, and to the history of philosophy, of science and of literature." The Art Of Memory, by Frances A Yates (Pimlico, 1992)

"Mary Carruthers's classic study of the training and uses of memory for a variety of purposes in European cultures during the Middle Ages has fundamentally changed the way scholars understand medieval culture. This fully revised and updated second edition considers afresh all the material and conclusions of the first. While responding to new directions in research inspired by the original, this new edition devotes much more attention to the role of trained memory in composition, whether of literature, music, architecture, or manuscript books. The new edition will reignite the debate on memory in medieval studies and, like the first, will be essential reading for scholars of history, music, the arts and literature, as well as those interested in issues of orality and literacy (anthropology), in the working and design of memory (both neuropsychology and artificial memory), and in the disciplines of meditation (religion)."  The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) by Mary Carruthers