Knowing by heart


Recently I read Dennis Haskell’s fine new poetry collection, Ahead of Us (to be launched tonight), a memorable book that has left a gritty residue in my mind.

Most of the poems, as they encircle the poet’s loss of his dead wife, evoke suffering and bereavement. Yet this pain-racked process is also a source of continual self-confirmation as he remembers and revaluates past times and places.

Going back as a widower to a Norwegian village that he first visited four decades earlier with her, he finds

there’s nothing here

beyond memories

that make me

what I am.

Bleak though they are, those simple lines resonate for me. I’ve been thinking lately about the extent to to which we shape our personal identity by making sense of our past and linking it to our present and future selves. I’ve also thought about the particular importance of this for writers.

Knowing ourselves is inseparable from the habit of conscious, intensive remembering, a valuable habit that featured strongly in my own childhood because it was reinforced by the practice (normal in those days) of requiring or encouraging children to learn poems and many other things verbatim.

In an earlier post I argued that although ‘rote learning’ is out of favour in schools it would be a mistake to neglect this way of fostering memory. Structured memorisation is not only an elementary basis for developing knowledge but also a potentially rich resource for advanced stages of reading and writing. Comments from writers and educators on my earlier post indicate that I’m not alone in this conviction.

Learning as a child to remember a patterned sequence of words and recite them in a group can be like a rudimentary form of choral singing – a source of delight rather than drudgery. And with maturity there may then come an internalised individual practice of memorisation, as we recognise the value in becoming so familiar with certain passages of verse or prose that we know them by heart. Knowing by heart is a mode of cognition to be cherished, not disparaged – especially in relation to the reading and writing of literature. Committing to memory what we read, far from being in conflict with creativity, can contribute substantially to it.

9781408859629Recently I came across supportive evidence for this point in a book called The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (2015). Fraser brings together the reminiscences of numerous writers about what they read in childhood and how they read it. Many emphasise the value of early habits of memorising and reciting passages of poetry and prose. Here are just a few examples.

‘At home and at school there had been much learning by rote, both compulsory and by choice’, says the brilliant travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor – and he lists many literary works and excerpts, committed to memory as a boy, which he was able to recite to himself at length as he hiked alone across Europe at the age of 18. Melvyn Bragg comments on the formative importance of group chants, remarking that literary influences may have ‘more to do with rhythm than subject, with sound rather than sense, especially at the start, which is when influences most matter.’ Candia McWilliam remembers obsessively repeating patterns of strange phrases as she jumped over her skipping rope, progressing to nursery rhymes and then going on to learn many poems verbatim.

For Jeanette Winterson, being ‘brought up to memorise very long biblical passages’ as a child equipped her to learn and recite difficult poetry in her school years. When very young, Emily Berry came across a volume of grown-up verse; ‘many of the poems in it’, she says, ‘were over my head, but I discovered the calming practice of incantation and there were some I read aloud many times.’ ‘Verse speaking’, recalls Roger McGough, ‘played an important part in fashioning my reading…. Eventually, as I became unselfconscious about hearing my own voice, I learned to listen to the poet’s.’ Jan Morris mentions many books whose ‘words and tales and cadences’ became, she says, ‘irrevocably a part of me’, including one whose ‘stupendous style’ continues to ‘ring so permanently through my mind that to this day I sometimes sing its opening lines aloud in the bath.’

For these writers and many others, early practices of rote learning, chanting memorised passages, provided a store of rhythmic language from which they could later draw in shaping their own artful compositions. I’m glad to have learnt things in this way, and sad that countless young children today are deprived by neglectful teachers and parents of the pleasure that rote learning can bring.

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