When the Internet offers a superabundance of material to read, watch, listen to and play, it's easy to skim over text and half-listen to broadcasts. But the British government is inviting schoolchildren to put down their cellphones, turn off their news feeds and spend a long time lingering over a poem — so long that they learn it by heart.
The United Kingdom's Department for Education is funding a nationwide poetry-reciting contest called Poetry By Heart, similar in structure to Poetry Out Loud in the U.S. and other poetry competitions in Canada and Ireland. The contest, at the county level, requires students to memorize two poems from a list of 130 choices and recite the poems by heart in a series of competitions.
English poet Jean Sprackland helped select the poems at the heart of the contest. She joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the pleasures of poetry memorization.
On learning by heart, not by rote
"Well, I suppose there's a great difference between learning by heart and the old-fashioned, rather dusty phrase 'learning by rote.' So there's a thought that if you learn by heart it means you take the poem right into yourself, it becomes part of you. And it remains with you, probably for the rest of your life. I think a lot of us can remember bits of poetry that we learned when we were very young. So it's something that lives with you forever."
On selecting the poems for Poetry By Heart
"We wanted to represent a great variety, a great richness of different sorts of poems in there. So it starts — the earliest poem is a 14th-century poem called 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,' by an anonymous poet, and then we go right up to the present day. ... We wanted to build a lot of variety into there so that young people could choose something to memorize and read aloud that appealed to them and that really was exciting and enjoyable for them to engage with. And we chose everything with that in mind, with memorizing and speaking aloud in mind. But as you can imagine, it was a terrifically difficult set of decisions to make because with anything like this there are always many, many more poems that you would like to include. And this is just for the first year, so we're hoping that the selection will grow and change as the competition continues in future years."
On a poem she learned by heart
"One of the first poems that I began to learn was [John] Keat's 'Ode to a Nightingale,' which of course I know as an adult is one of the great English Romantic poems and is full of all this stuff about the ephemeral nature of love and youth and life. But I think probably as a 10- or 11-year-old I didn't know that at all. I just loved the sound of the words, and the sound of the words held meaning for me and the way the words tasted and felt in my mouth when I spoke them. So that's what I first loved about the poem, and then it's been a lifelong love affair. I've read the poem so many hundreds of times and remembered it and gone through it in my own head when there's nothing else that I need to be doing. So I think that's a good example, really, of how you can learn something very early in your life and it lives with you always."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The British government wants schoolchildren to put their cell phones for a few minutes and read - deeply. In fact, to memorize a piece of poetry. It's even funding a nationwide poetry reciting contest called Poetry By Heart. We're joined now from London by the poet Jean Sprackland. Thanks very much for being with us.
JEAN SPRACKLAND: It's a pleasure.
SIMON: And why, in your judgment, should youngster memorize poetry, not just read poems?
SPRACKLAND: Well, I suppose there's a great difference between learning by heart and the old-fashioned, rather dusty phrase learning by rote. So, there's a thought that if you learn by heart, it means you take the poem right into yourself. It becomes part of you. So, it's something that lives with you forever.
SIMON: And do you have the impression that children might have an easier time remembering poetry than adults do?
SPRACKLAND: Absolutely. I think children often commit things to memory without knowing they're doing it. That's why I suppose nursery rhymes and playground rhymes get passed on from generation to generation without anybody making any great effort.
SIMON: What do you remember?
SPRACKLAND: Well, one of the first poems that I began to learn was Keat's poem "Ode to a Nightingale," which of course I know as an adult is one of the great English romantic poems and is full of all this stuff about the ephemeral nature of love and youth and life. But I think probably as a 10- or 11-year-old I just loved the sound of the words, and the way the words tasted and felt in my mouth when I spoke them.
SIMON: Could we hear a little?
SPRACKLAND: Sure. I won't give you the whole poem. It's rather long. Oh, for a draft of vintage that have been culled a long age in the deep delved earth. Tasting of flora and the country green, dense and Provencal song and sun burnt mirth. Oh, for a beaker full of the warm south, full of the true, the blushful hippocream(ph), with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple stained mouth, that I might drink and leave this world unseen. And with thee fade away in the forest dim.
SIMON: That's very nice indeed. I'm inclined to respond by saying, you know, she should have died hereafter. There would have been time for such a word. You know, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps at its petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools, they waited dust to your death. Out, out brief candle - sorry.
SPRACKLAND: That's pretty wonderful.
SIMON: Jean Sprackland is one of the poets who've selected verses for schoolchildren in the United Kingdom to recite for a new contest called Poetry By Heart. Thanks very much, Ms. Sprackland.
SPRACKLAND: Thank you.
SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.