BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal
« Previous | Main | Next »

The power of poetry

Razia Iqbal | 14:13 UK time, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Poetry is all too often seen as a private pleasure. And the world of poetry is small compared with that of novels.

Of course the world of poetry has its best-selling writers, from Seamus Heaney to Sharon Olds and many more. But I've read two things recently that may put the art form more centre stage, and carve a more public profile for it.

The first is that Mayor of London Boris Johnson is calling for "universal saying lessons" in English poetry. Given the premium he puts on language, that struck me as particularly inelegant.

However, his point, which he presents in the Daily Telegraph today, is made to focus the Conservative Party's minds on education policy. He says the way to create good schools is to insist that the children learn something good.

They should learn two or three poems a term, by heart, and he adds as an aside, that we should put them on television and get them judged by Simon Cowell. His thoughts spring from a visit to a school where he asked sixth formers what poetry they could recite by heart and there was silence.

To get a sense of his passion on the subject, his response was "rage, despair and a desire to do something about it".

The second thing I've seen recently, which will surely gladden Boris Johnson's heart, is the Off by Heart verse reciting competition, the final of which will be hosted by the Oxford Literary Festival in early April.

The idea is Daisy Goodwin's, who has done a great deal already to raise the profile of poetry. 10% cent of the UK's primary schools took part in this competition, and it's hoped that the event will become an annual one, bringing in greater numbers of schools and children every year.

Perhaps Boris Johnson can be tempted to show how much fun learning poetry can be. He describes himself as a slightly wonky poetry jukebox, and professes to know thousands of fragments of poems and rather impressively, a dozen of Shakespeare's sonnets, the whole of Lycidas and the first 100 lines of Homer's the Illiad in Greek. He is surely not typical, but I am happy to be proven wrong.

So what can you recite off by heart and does it matter? Poetry is the one art in which this island excels above others, and yet it has such a minor profile. Will learning it by heart at school change its status?


  • Comment number 1.

    Sappho - "sweet mother"

    Ali - "me we"

  • Comment number 2.

    Think its worth while putting this here a Sapho poem on old age.

    Maybe Boris can translate ?

  • Comment number 3.

    I always say that I hate poetry. But I love the works of Robert Burns. And I am told that most of that is poetic. So maybe it's only poetry that I like that I like... Q

  • Comment number 4.

    Not being British, I always enjoyed learning poetry by heart as a child. I don't think it can be imposed on children to learn by heart and stick - but to make it fashionable among the young to learn by heart, to have them love the sound of words and the new fashioned meanings that come out of combinations, now that would be good. You cannot learn something you do not love, and I suspect it is fashionable to hate poetry because it requires a little effort of the mind to understand and the so called "generation millenium" are alleged to have a very low effort rating!

  • Comment number 5.

    "The first is that Mayor of London Boris Johnson is calling for "universal saying lessons" in English poetry. Given the premium he puts on language, that struck me as particularly inelegant.

    However, his point, which he presents in the Daily Telegraph today, is made to focus the Conservative Party's minds on education policy. He says the way to create good schools is to insist that the children learn something good." BBC

    Boris Boris Boris... If any of you career politicians were really serious about improving education in the UK ALL children would be sent to the nearest school. THAT would see an improvement right across the country at ALL schools. Till then Boris its just mannerist sound nice toothy smiles at the dumbed down voters ain't it! Time the politicians learnt something good.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think 'universal saying lessons' is a rather elegant way of putting it. The idiom makes you think about what is being said - rather the way that GM Hopkins does at his best.

    People are embarrassed to admit they know any poetry, but most take pride in the Beatles or Randy Newman lyrics they have loved for years.

    Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,
    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives;

  • Comment number 7.

    I know and can recite thousands of lines of poetry by heart and can usually remember them after having read or heard them the first or second time.

  • Comment number 8.

    i can still recite lewis carrol's 'jabberwocky' and robert frost's 'desert places' by heart, as well as random snippets of poems as varied as plath's 'daddy' and tennyson's 'the lady of shallot'.

    i'm not sure forcing children to learn poetry by heart would be beneficial - it would most likely only serve to make literature a chore - but i think getting them to read aloud would be a wonderful idea. a great deal of the "power of poetry" comes from phonological devices; which are best appreciated when spoken or heard, and it would encourage children to engage more thoroughly with the poetry.

  • Comment number 9.

    Well first of all, I think we should leave Simon Cowell out of it.
    Getting kids to recite poetry from memory won't necessarily revive it any more than Latin elocution lessons will revive Classics. It might (optimistically speaking) give them an appreciation of the aesthetics of language which I think is so important in poetry.
    I think it would be better to help them connect with poetry essentially as an art form, and that means liberating it from outworn rules and structures. Poems are uniquely suited to expressing emotions and inverting reality, altering perceptions, challenging norms. Contemporary poetry often lacks this; maybe what we need is a return to romanticism. And also an awareness of how poetry can drift away from prose literature to more immediate creative media like drama and music - think lyrics, performance, passion. Less structure, more chaos, maybe....
    ~Madness Divine~

  • Comment number 10.

    On the subject of True Poetry, you could find out a lot if you come to Oxford on 30th April or see a preview performance Sat.25th April 8pm at The Knutsford Heritage CentrePress Release
    Professor of Poetry at Oxford

    There will be a Lecture and Performance
    in the Danson Room, Trinity College, Oxford
    at 8.30 pm on Thursday 30th April 2009

    The Ghost of Beowulf
    The Tyrannical Neo-Classical
    ‘Iambic Pentameter’
    and its Attendant Rabble of Ambiguous ‘Feet’

    MICHAEL GEORGE GIBSON, who intends to stand in the Election for Professor of Poetry at Oxford, will reveal the True Rhythm of ‘Beowulf’, and of much other English poetry over the centuries.
    He will also be exposing various sorts and degrees of prosodic nonsense presented by such as Mr Stephen FRY, Mr James FENTON (a former Professor of Poetry at Oxford), Mr Michael SCHMIDT (Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University), Mr Simon ARMITAGE, Mr Bernard O’DONOGUE, Mr Derek ATTRIDGE, Mr Geoffrey LEECH, and Ms Ruth PADEL (another would-be Professor of Poetry at Oxford). There will also be an examination of some of the absurd working of The Poetry Society, and of questionable behaviour by members of a group called Poets on Fire.

    You might be advised to ensure a seat by phoning Mr Gibson on 01565 632819 or e-mailing him at and claiming your seat by 8.15 pm on the night.


    Mr Gibson will also play some tunes on a wooden pipe and will sing.
    The show will be recorded.
    There is no charge for entrance.
    All are welcome.

    Michael Gibson is seeking twelve Oxford graduates to nominate him as a candidate in the election of Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

    , Knutsford, Cheshire.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.