Geoff Nunberg is the LH house linguist not just because of his scholarship but because he’s able to put it at the service of a wider view of language and the world. His latest Fresh Air commentary is about learning poetry by heart, which he agrees with me in thinking a useful practise that should be revived (as Poetry is trying to do). He ends with the following passionate peroration:

If you think you can understand poems without feeling them in your body, you’re apt to treat them as no more than pretty op-ed pieces—you wind up teaching kids to value “The Road Not Taken” as merely a piece of sage advice about making difficult decisions.

I was about seven or eight years old when I learned Burns’s “Scots wha’ hae’ wi’ Wallace bled” from my dad. I had absolutely no idea what the poem was about or even what half the words meant. But I learned something else—how verse can become a physical presence, in Robert Pinsky’s words, which “operates at the borderland of body and mind.”

That’s an experience that you can only live fully when the poem comes from within rather than from the page in front of you. I like the way the Victorianist Catherine Robson put this: “When we don’t learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes… of its own incessant beat.”

I was greatly amused, though, when he slipped one past whoever monitors Fresh Air for decency:

Unless you’re one of those freaks of nature who can soak this stuff up effortlessly, most of what you’ve got left of the poems you’ve learned is only snips and snatches—”My heart aches, and a something something pains my sense”; “I will arise and go now, and go to whatchamacallit”; “Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do.”

That last quote is the opening of perhaps the best-known English poem of the last few decades, Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse“; I can’t imagine that anybody who’s once heard or read the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” could possibly half-remember it as “Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad.”

Addendum 1. Dick & Garlick discusses the “Babu English” verb by-heart ‘learn by rote memorization.’

Addendum 2. Mark Liberman is “slightly surprised” at my reaction to Nunberg’s sly half-quote: “the FCC has no regulations against on-air quotations whose (unread) context includes forbidden words.” I’m sure that’s true, but I wasn’t talking about FCC regs so much as the general concern for suitability that prevails at NPR; I can’t imagine Frank Deford or Cokie Roberts alluding, even obliquely, to the word fuck.


  1. But making kids memorise poetry if they don’t want to can kill it stone dead for them too, so you have to be careful.
    When I was at school,an elderly teacher told me he had once made a child learn Browning’s “Home Thoughts from the Sea” as a punishment (shows my age, doesn’t it). The kid duly came along after a few days and began to recite:
    “Nobody, nobody, Cape St Vincent to the northwest died away…”
    “Just a minute,” said the teacher. “What do you think what you’ve just said means?”
    “Oh, but Sir, it doesn’t mean anything! It’s poetry!

  2. Sure, and Nunberg discusses that problem. But kids shouldn’t be made to do anything. A good teacher can get kids to want to read and memorize poetry. Of course there aren’t enough good teachers, but that’s a separate issue.

  3. Learning poetry and learning songs…excellent way to learn a foreign language!

  4. Havelock’s “Preface to Plato” has a great section about how the memorization of Homer gave Greeks not their personal character. His ultimate point is that this is why Plato banned poetry — Greeks formed on Homer could find answers to every question in their word-hoard, and rational discussion was impossible.
    McNeill’s “Moving together in Time” is about how music and dance had similiar character-forming powers — he especially emphasizes the use of music / dance in military training, and as a way of coordinating the activity of military units.

  5. Delete “not”.

  6. I appreciated Shakespeare more through memorization. Each line suggests the next, making it far more easier to memorize than you might otherwise think.

  7. when i was in high school i had a chemistry teacher who liked to recite poetry to himself out loud. (one of the poems was Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, i believe.)
    it was the first time anyone in my experience took pleasure in poetry, as opposed to having to deal with it by compulsion.

Speak Your Mind