Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 1: Poetry is hard

Note: This series has been a few days in the writing.  It is a total, though perhaps timely coincidence that I wrote this around the same time that the new NC listed reciting poetry as a component.

Poetry: the final frontier

I left school a staunch scientist, straight down the line.  My A Levels were woefully lacking in breadth, and Shakespeare was boring.  I always liked classical music, some of it, the stuff that was easy to listen to.  I occasionally went to museums and art galleries, and attempted to appreciate what was there, as best I could.  Five years ago, I had the good fortune to actually be able to study the history of music and art to some degree.  The lecture courses were remarkable, and almost strange; in the music course I found I was learning as much about European history as I was music.  The lecturer’s point was that music reflects the both the musician and society; the times in which the musician lived.  To understand what drove and inspired their music, we must first know their life, and their world.  The art courses were similar – chronological, well sequenced, with social and political history being a necessary theme to understand and appreciate the works for all they were.  It felt like all previous efforts to engage with ‘high art’ of this kind had involved me scratching around at the surface, trying to find a way in, and now suddenly the doors were flung wide and a whole new dimension stretched far ahead.

Thing about music and art, is that even if you know nothing about them, they can still be appreciated to some small degree, if you want to try.  Not so for poetry, at least, not so for me.  We can find concert pieces that ‘sound nice,’ or paintings that ‘look nice,’ even if we cannot grasp the full weight of their message or their social implications, regardless of whether many other pieces remain impenetrable to us (I have yet to understand the fuss made around Malevich’s ‘Black Square on a White Ground,’ though if anyone would like to have a go at explaining in the comments, please do!)  With poems, yes, some sound euphonious when spoken aloud, and there’s a whole movement of slam or spoken-word poetry that focuses on that aesthetic quality.  One such example that many teachers will be familiar with is this incredible homage paid by Taylor Mali:

But spoken-word poetry has always seemed relatively – note relatively – simple in its construction, when compared with many great and enduring poems of ages past – and presumably of contemporary poems with which I’m unfamiliar.  Mali’s piece uses language that everyone can automatically understand; its mastery is in how it comes together to produce a poem that sounds beautiful while making an important case in defence of teachers.  By comparison, if I start listing names like Blake, Kipling, Poe, Shakespeare, Dante, Coleridge, Chaucer, Shelley, Whitman, and so on, people who are considered amongst the greatest poets who ever lived, well then anyone familiar with their work will know that they do not have the ready ease of enjoyment that does Mali’s piece.  It’s not just the dead white men with their antique language; for my part I’ve struggled equally with more modern poetry.

 Rhetorical Formula

Symbolic algebra is marked by extremely high information density.  Just like poems… ?

To my eyes now, I think poems resemble algebraic models; a statement that will stop cold the heart of many an English major!  Symbolic algebraic statements are able to communicate a great deal of information, very efficiently; they have high information density.  Poems can be said to resemble algebra in that the best poets are able to generate similarly incredible information density, in inventing new ways of expressing an idea via the written word.  Professor Robert Greenberg says something similar about what he calls ‘great music,’ or ‘concert music’.  While most people colloquially define what he’s referring to as ‘classical music,’ since ‘classical music’ is technically defined by music created between the years 1750 and 1827, he needs a new way of defining the music covered in his lectures.  In doing so, he describes ‘concert music’ as being distinct from ‘popular music’ in ‘…generally having greater information content.’

The brilliance of the best poets is lauded precisely because they are able to create this information density, while simultaneously creating pleasing rhythms, cadences and sounds.  But this then means that, like algebraic models, to the uninitiated poems can be alien and impenetrable.  Let’s look at a line from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee’, which I think demonstrates the case quite well:

And every fair from fair sometime declines

For anyone who doesn’t know the poem, that line will likely be meaningless.  You can try the whole sonnet here, if you wish, in the hope that context might help:

It probably won’t, so here’s a shortcut.  This is what Shakespeare is actually saying:

And everything that is fair in nature, will inevitably decline from the state of being fair at some point in time

A closer approximation is provided here:


And everything beautiful sometime will lose its beauty

Either way, that should make a lot more sense now.

Shakespeare: 7 words, 10 syllables in iambic pentameter (you can read it like a heartbeat: duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum – and-ev, ry-fair, from-fair, some-time, de-clines)

Mine: 21 words, 30 syllables

Alternative: 8 words, 14 syllables

Shakespeare not only squeezes so much information into just 10 syllables, but he does it, somehow, as if using some blasphemous sorcery, while making those words fit a precise rhythmic pattern!   This comes at a cost: his line is the least easy to immediately understand.  Despite there being no archaic language, the strange structure of the words is enough to render them impenetrable to the novice reader, and this is all before we start bringing in words that are archaic, or uncommon, or assumed contextual knowledge that brings life and depth to the poem.

Conclusion: Poems can be difficult to enjoy because, like mathematics, they make use of large amounts of assumed knowledge in order to convey vast quantities of complex information.

The assumed knowledge could be, as with mathematics and concert music, of the structure or form of the poem.  It could be knowledge of the words’ meanings, and sometimes more likely, of a single word’s many different meanings.  It could also be contextual knowledge of social, political or historical events, necessary to understand the poet’s intention and their message.  As a reward for meeting poems ready to go with this assumed knowledge in place, they in turn can convey yet more wisdom, inspiration and beauty, in a form that is music without melody.

Next time: How I recently learnt to love poetry


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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22 Responses to Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 1: Poetry is hard

  1. David Didau says:

    What’s a mathematician doing writing so interestingly about poetry? For shame.

    Here’s a botched attempt to write about what I’ve rather clumsily called ‘the mathematics of writing’:

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Couldn’t help myself David!

      Enjoyed your post, felt like I learnt something from it! I wonder, have you tried teaching it in that way? Does it make it easier to see the structures going on underneath the surface, or does it overload with barely understood definitions and abstract symbology, they way that mathematics can?

  2. Neil Brown says:

    Along similar lines of appreciating poetry coming from a less arts background, have you ever seen the series of posts on Poetry for Engineers? It didn’t convince me about poetry (I’m still in the dislike camp), but I appreciated the way it tried to take a different tack in approaching the subject.

  3. l4l1 says:

    People interested in the process of how to “read” a poem really should sign up for this free course in September:

    or at least watch the video seminars. Very much how I used to run adult poetry workshops. In the first one they take an Emily Dickinson poem apart word for word. What first seems a sparse and bare poem gradually comes to life as each student is assigned a word or phrase to tease out the meaning. Be wary of ‘assumed” knowledge as that can also be a false friend at times. Poets are makers first – so looking at the brickwork often helps, then you can examine the lime kiln later…

    As someone who ran a major poetry magazine for years and who read upwards of a 1000 unsolicited scripts a month (almost destroying my appreciation of the artform) what stood out in a good poem was a unique “voice” that you could catch immediately, memorable language and a ‘well made’ piece of writing in every sense of the word.

    I can’t see any merit in memorising poems, however, although it does come in handy as “swank’ at parties or for exam purposes most likely. I’ve sometimes found myself in rooms with people who could chant the whole of The Waste Land in unison. I always found that a little bit creepy.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Is it Dickinson’s ‘Letter to the World’ by any chance? It’s the only poem I’ve memorised to date for whih I have no love, and as you say, the language seems sparse. Perhaps I’m missing out!

      Poe’s ‘The Raven’ is my ‘wasteland’, albeit less impressive. It will be interesting to see whether the second post sways you towards considering whether there might be some virtue in memorising poems.

      I’m curious, in all that time, is there not one single poem you ever learnt to recite by heart?

      • Leon Cych says:

        It was

        I dwell in Possibility (466)

        Yes, I did as a child from an extremely young age. Walrus and the Carpenter – lots of Lewis Carroll for fun – only fragments stay with me now. But then I can’t even carry a nursery rhyme or good tune. There was a long tradition on my mother’s side of the family of going to the Feis. Recitation of poetry was culturally embedded if you come from that tradition – probably why I had to suffer through Joseph Mary Plunkett but not Yeats. Yeats was a revelation. But. let’s say, I was steeped in rote learning of poetry from an extremely young age – I am that old.

        I tend to remember memorable parts of poems like the end of Dover Beach, Robert Lowell’s – For the Union Dead or the marvellously upbeat ending of Tar by C.K.Williams as examples.

        In terms of recitation, been there done that decades ago, I am not returning. As someone somewhere once said:

        In my beginning is my end. In succession
        Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
        Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
        Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

        or maybe :

  4. Malevich’s work needs to be put into context: it’s a revolutionary piece, one which strikes back at the conventions and acquired baggage of centuries of representative art. If you approach it with the eyes of someone accustomed to conventional painting, you’ll find it shattering, aggressive and unsettling, just as the audience of the first performance of ‘The Rite of Spring’ were moved to violence by Stravinsky’s music.

    I love all that mad, exciting Russian Suprematist (or Italian Futurist, or Dadaist, or whatever takes your fancy) stuff. It does make me wonder why we as teachers of English work so hard to undo the revolutions in language that the poets of a century ago fought to achieve.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Context – figured as much. The knowledge we bring to the table seems to determine our ability to appreciate a work of art.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        ED Hirsch would call it ‘cultural knowledge’, I guess.

      • I’m not sure I agree. A work such as Malevich’s is enriched by an understanding of its context, but it is an exceptional work, conceived to be an affront to the prevailing artistic sensibilities of its time; it shouldn’t be taken as evidence that our response to art is determined by the knowledge we bring to it.

        Much of teaching children how to respond to works of art is to teach them how to respond sensitively to the feelings, the human dimension of the work itself. This may seem very simplistic, but this is where one needs to choose works that are appropriate for the children themselves, and make sure they are encountering it in the right way.

        For example, taking a group of children to a really good production of Shakespeare on stage will leave them captivated by the story and the human drama played out in it. The great pity is that there is neither the time nor the money to make sure that all schoolchildren in this country get to go, regularly, to high-quality theatre.

        Thinking of Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’: one could spend a great deal of time contextualising it within the Romantic movement and the early 19th century, but that seems unnecessary given the intensity of the human drama of the song. It’s a man, comforting a terrified child whose life is stolen by a terrifying monster. As long as you know what the text means, then as a listener you can be transported by this music, especially if you get to see it performed by a singer who throws themselves into the work’s drama.

        Much of the knowledge that children need to respond well to works of art is not factual, but a knowledge of how people think and feel. They need to be able to discriminate between crude awarenesses of anger, sadness or elation and begin to unpick the subtle play of emotions that a great work of art will present and evoke. In the end, art is, well, an art, not a science. I have a deep dislike of Vaughan Williams, yet his music moves others profoundly. As a teacher, one must accept that, when presenting a room full of children with a unique work of art, they won’t all like it, no matter how much they know.

  5. jwpblog says:

    Reblogged this on English teaching resources and commented:
    I love this post: part Tok and part English. I love the analogy with poetry

  6. Kris Boulton says:

    Will, I’m left wondering the background of the kids you teach! It sounds like they’re already coming to school with an awful lot of knowledge and experience in place – I’d be surprised to learn that they were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds; either they’re not, or you’re not giving your school’s education system enough credit!

    Something I read two years ago that’s stuck with me throughout – “We underestimate our knowledge, and overestimate theirs.”

    “…it is an exceptional work, conceived to be an affront to the prevailing artistic sensibilities of its time.”

    I’ve no doubt it is, but when I look at it I see a black square, on a white background, and perceive nothing remarkable about it. Hypothetically, were we to take the UK population to view it, I imagine the vast, vast majority would respond the same way. Even in your line above, you couldn’t help make reference to how it was intended in its own time, at its point of creation, which implies knowledge of what went before it.

    To listen to Beethoven’s Eroica and know nothing of the fact that it heralded the start of the Romantic movement, or know nothing about the technical form and composition of the music, and how that differed from the Classical music before it, you could be completely forgiven for perceiving nothing remarkable in it whatsoever! To the untrained ear it just sounds like ‘more classical music.’ In fact I remember watching a BBC reconstruction of its first performance some years back; in it, the characters were making such remarks as ‘This changes everything!’ and the conductor was arguing with Beethoven about when the trumpets were supposed to come in at the start. It was an interesting watch, it’s stayed with me and I’ve been able to interpret it in later years, but at the time I had no idea what they were talking about – just sounded like yet more ‘classical’ music to me.

    Naturally, as in most all things, there needs to be some balance in what we choose to explain. The human drama is indeed a central to Shakespeare’s works, and of course that demands attention; we wouldn’t want to ignore that while waxing lyrical about the entire history of Western Europe and the UK. In the end the more we know, the more we can appreciate great works, and the art of curriculum design for the Arts and Humanities lies in balancing that fact with finite time.

  7. Jill Berry says:

    Kris: As someone who taught English for 30 years (and it gives me pause for thought that I couldn’t begin to talk about Maths with the aplomb with which you talk about literature here!) I agree that poetry can be difficult, but I also see the truth of the T S Eliot comment that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’ – I’ve read poems over the years (both as a student and later as a teacher) which had an immediate impact on me, and this impact then motivated me to work to understand them.

    Just one thing about memorising – it isn’t a high level skill and some people can memorise quite easily without any real appreciation of what they’re memorising, but if they’re motivated by a love of the poetry they’ve decided to commit to memory, that is valuable, I would say.

    Reading your post reminded me of something from my past that I hadn’t thought about for years. (That memory thing again…) When I was twelve I had an English teacher who, at the time, I wasn’t that keen on, but it’s interesting how much of what she did with us has stuck with me over the years. She made us memorise chunks of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ – and we had to learn it to write it out (rather than just recite it) so we had to remember where the line breaks and punctuation were too. I was a bright girl and good at English but I was struggling with this. My elder brother asked me what I was doing and when I told him he said, ‘Well, what does it mean?’ and I said I didn’t know, and that was the problem – it was a little like learning something verbatim in a foreign language you don’t speak. So he sat down with me and we went through one of the chunks, talking about the meaning until I ‘got it’ and could visualise what the words meant. Then he left me and I tried to memorise the passage, and found I could do so very easily and very quickly. A revelation!

    Unfortunately he was now bored with this and he left me to finish the task on my own. Without his help and someone to talk it through with, I couldn’t work out the meaning by myself and I was back to struggling again. When I became an English teacher if I ever did want pupils to learn anything, I remembered the difference between learning with understanding and trying to learn without.

    I recognise this would be a better story if I could say that I can still remember the chunk my brother worked on with me (43 years later!), but, actually, it’s all gone, and I’ve never looked at ‘Idylls of the King’ since! But I have memorised other poems I have loved (just for pleasure), and I’ve always worked to try to understand the meaning before I’ve tried to commit them to memory.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Hi Jill. Thanks again for the comment; so insightful.

      Wrt memorising not being a high level skill, the may be some truth to this, but I think it needs to be understood with a cautionary note: because people are now often taught that ‘memorisation is not high level’ or ‘not as high level as understanding,’ it has become devalued, which I think is a tragedy. Only just this morning while shaving I was able to enjoy again Shelley’s Ozymandias and Yeates’ Second Coming, because they were memorised. I sometimes ask, why are we teaching anything, if we don’t care whether people still know it or can recall it in the future? There are obvious limitations to this line or reasoning, but for me at lest it ways gives pause for thought. We then arrive at a situation where teaching to memorise is perceived as bad, or necessarily rote, and a situation where I’ve heard self-aggrandising English teachers declare ‘I don’t bother with all that knowledge rubbish, I just jump straight into high level skills like synthesis,’ treating Bloom’s like a league table, and completely failing to recognise the importance of the ostensibly ‘low level’ to the ‘high level.’ The more we know, and the more we can effortlessly recall, the better will be our ability to understand or even synthesise new content.

      I think it’s completely reasonable that you’ve forgotten so much of it now! Willingham’s now oft cited notion that ‘memory is the residue of thought’ would suggest that the more we think about something, the more we remember it – fail to think about it, forget it. I reckon I could easily lose the poems I’ve now memorised if I completely stopped thinking about them. I a similar way, pele who invested years learning a language work about losing it, and I think they do if they stop altogether. On the other hand, the more we have thought about something, the less likely we are to forget it, or, as I look at it, the longer we can go before we start making mistakes in its recollection. It used to be that I had to recite a poem each day to keep recalling it accurately. Now, I can perhaps go a few weeks before I have to think about it again. Eventually, could it be years? I think this is related to the idea of distributed learning or distributed practice; it’s something I’m interested in learning more about. Yesterday I learnt about the Anki software and apps ( that use this idea to help people memorise content.

      A lot of what you write about the importance of meaning certainly rings true. I think I need to edit the second post, which I’m hoping I can put up in the next week or two, to incorporate some of my thoughts and experiences around that. I addition, since writing it I’ve had some feedback from a school pupil which is relevant to be importance of meaning wrt memory.

      In the comments below, Chris Hildrew linked to a great little clip on the poems by heart website, which makes the distinction between learning by rote and learning by heart. I like their distinction a lot, it rings very true with me. I this sense, I would suggest that memorisation is less a ‘low level skill’ than a profound and enduring gift.

  8. chrishildrew says:

    Loved this post – thank you! There is a real connection I think between the compression of meaning in a poem and an equation, which you have captured so well. Both require learned and practised decoding skills to grasp too. I’m really looking forward to the next in the series!

    I was not convinced on the arguments for memorising poems until I head Andrew Motion speaking about the difference between learning poems by rote, and learning them by heart. It was such a persuasive and critical distinction that I was instantly sold! See what you think:

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks for that Chris! Absolutely loved it. I’ve been thinking increasingly that I need to adopt the language of ‘learning by heart’ – it frees us from the misconceptions and fears that some people have of the idea of memorising anything.

  9. Jill Berry says:

    Kris and Chris: if I can respond to both of you together. I loved the Andrew Motion clip too and absolutely get the distinction. (Thanks Chris – I hadn’t seen it before, though I heard Andrew Motion speak – inspiringly – when he was the poet laureate. He’s an amazing gentle, humble but clearly brilliant man). I think this is what I was trying to get at when I referred to the difference between memorising mechanically (because we’re compelled to for some reason) and memorising which is motivated by a love for what we decide to commit to memory. The first seems a lower level skill than the second, but perhaps I’m wrong and it’s a false distinction? Need to give that a bit more thought!

    You refer to it above Kris, but one of the poems I memorised many years ago is the Shakespearean sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee…?’ and what motivated me is the fantastic final couplet which suggests that poetry defeats time and mortality, because while ever anyone reads/remembers/recites the poem, the beauty of the loved one is recreated and lives again. I think that’s such a powerful and moving concept. And I can run through it in my head any time because it’s there!

    Looking forward to part 2 Kris!

    • l4l1 says:

      However, some of us cannot remember the complete texts. I may have about 6000 + poems I really love and remember in my “heart” but I cannot remember any poem all the way through. it is enough I have fragments and access through books and computer networks to revisit them when and as I need. I remember lines and phrases but not the entirety nor would I wish to to be honest.

      As Hopkins also said : “Glory be to God for dappled things— …/Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)/ With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím; “

  10. Pingback: Does memorisation get in the way of learning? – Part 3 | …to the real.

  11. Pingback: I ♥ rote learning | David Didau: The Learning Spy

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