This is not a poem – learning by heart in a rote world

By Liam Heneghan

For Patricia Monaghan, poet and friend

“I am cold and alone on my tree root, sitting as still as stone.” I recited this forlornly, lost in E. J. Scovell’s poem. I was ten years old and competitively reciting at the Father Matthew Feis, an annual all-Ireland poetry festival. The year was 1974. “The fish come to my net,” I continued, “I scorned the Boy Fishing0001 sun, the voices on the road and they have gone.” Beneath me I could feel, not the stage boards of the Father Matthew Hall in Church Street, Dublin, but dead root-timber; the stage light was the sun. “My eyes are buried in the cold pond under the cold, spread leaves; my thoughts are silver-wet.” The scuffling schoolboys and girls, their mammies and daddies and their elocution teachers, were gone; I was staring into the peat-dark and swollen waters of the Finglas River which emptied onto an Atlantic beach in Camp, Co. Kerry, my fishing rod in hand, dressed up as the sky.

This was my father’s experiment: on an overcast afternoon, beneath the dreep of autumn hedges, dress your sons in plastic rubbish sacks, fashion hats out of blue shopping bags and set them loose on the banks. No bites that day for me; perhaps the fish were fooled or perhaps in their own piscine way they shared the bemusement of the mirthful onlookers who strolled over to examine the young boys that were disguised as the sky. I scorned them, I scorned them all and slumped humiliated beneath the hedge and gazed damply into the waters; I endured my own thoughts; I waited. Though I failed at being the sky, and failed as a fisherman, I was, however, remarkably good at memorizing poems. An achievement made more remarkable maybe, by the fact that, at the time, I remained functionally illiterate.


In a significant codicil to the poetry collection “The School Bag”, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (Faber and Faber, 1997), Hughes provided a guide to memorizing poems, an exercise which he informs us should be undertaken as a game: “It should be a pleasure”. He cautions against “learning by rote”, the tedium of which he says was thought by English educators to be “disciplinary and character building”. The essence of Hughes’ technique is to link verbal phrases to visual images. Anything goes: a sacred poem can be linked to a suite of profane cartoons; a poem can become a soundtrack for a succession of film-like images. “The whole point”, Hughes says “is to get the poem, by any means, foul or fair, into the head.” The cartoons can provide a sort alphabetic key to the poem after which an “audial” memory provides musical prompts for the remainder of the line. That is, an image gets you started, after which the rhyme and music of the lines take over. The techniques that Hughes revives, he concedes, are ancient ones. Close in spirit is the “method of loci” where an orator as she orates, takes a mental walk through a building and recites the speech through the series of places visited on the route (“In the first place… in the second place” etc., each “place” being a station aloRattle Bag0001ng the way). Hughes closes his essay by darkly reminding us that imagistic mnemonic techniques are “dimly associated with paganism and Catholicism”, and are often dismissed as “cheating” and “tricks” and replaced by rote memorizing.

If imagistic learning is Catholic, it was Catholic also, in those days, to fail to instruct on the best means of accomplishing complex tasks – excepting, that is, the arduous task of getting into the heavenly kingdom. Edith Scovell’s poem “Boy Fishing” is short – eight lines in all; not much of a challenge. Less easy is, say, Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”, with its more than twenty lines of condensed thought. A more severe challenge still is the approximately one hundred and thirty lines of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and so forth. These, along with anthologies worth of verse, I committed to memory (initially for competition at Feis Matthew and later for school work where quotation of poems were required for the state English exams; eventually I did it as a pleasing game).

Since we were not given much instruction on how to commit verse to memory, kids, it seemed, invented their own ways. I was not an accomplished reader, as I have mentioned, and though my teachers had noticed this, I don’t recall my disability ever being “a big deal”. As reading was for me a slow and private misery, I would attempt as quickly as possible to hitch the words to a memory – “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table” I remembered by recalling walking down Grafton Street with my sister Anne at Christmastime aware of an ominous sky overhead, a sky muted by a spread of cotton clouds. My memories and the images of the poems blended, in a precise minuet of image to line; line to image. A crucial difference between the technique I “invented” to circumvent the sort of reading and reciting, and re-reading and re-reciting that I assumed others were employing – (I can see books held loosely in hands, heads back, eyes closed, lines stammered) – and the methods of Hughes, which I learned of years later, was that the images I employed to recall the written lines were not outlandish or especially remarkable (certainly not “cartoons”), but were they were my memories of specific places and events. They were the record (this, a satisfyingly musical phrase) of where I had been, memories of experiences, pilgrimages taking by the motile body, moving to the beat of my metronymic heart. To be explicit, maybe overbearingly so, I understood the memorizing of linguistic phrases to be best served by an association with memories of the world traversed. Memory, not of my voice repeating words lifted from the page, but memory of lived places brought to the aid of the written word. The body in motion, the blood flowing, poems quite literally learned by heart.

The term used for the memorizing of such poems was, of course, precisely that: learning by heart. It is a phrase I don’t hear used so much these days, people preferring (while at the same time not preferring, in practice, it seems) the term “learning by rote”. The origins of “rote” are a little obscure coming from the “post-classical Latin rota, musical composition in the form of a round”, according to the OED. Etymologically, the term “learning by heart” however derives from the Greeks who, sources have it, considered the heart, that most palpable of inner organs, to be the vital core of a person[i]. From this perspective then, it was the heart, rather than that ponderously silent organ, the brain, that was a center for sensation and emotion and learning. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms pedestrianly conflates the terms learning by heart and learning by rote, suggesting though that the latter term denotes “mere memorization without deeper understanding”. To phrase it as my mother did when I asked her opinion on the difference between the two phrases: “You learn something by heart which will eventually mean something to you emotionally such a poem or a prayer, while you learn your multiplicatioP1010033n tables by rote.”[ii] The reference to prayer is a nice touch; point well taken, Mom. In fact, the importance of the heart in prayer has a history somewhat older than my mother’s remarks. The OED records a comment from one T. Fuller who, in 1645, in a volume with the promising title “Good Thoughts in Bad Times”, reported “I had said them [sc. prayers], rather by heart than with my heart.” Older still is the Greek Orthodox prayer tradition of Hesychasm, based upon the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) where that prayer is practiced till the words and breathing and the heart are synchronized, so that every breath and every beating of the heart calls out the name of God. One may indeed learn one's prayer's “by rote”, and even if this can mean to learn them as a “musical composition in the form of a round”, it seems a poor term for the heart crying out to it's creator.


A poem, dictionarily stated, is a written or oral composition in which the subject matter is deepened by the employment of distinctive literary devices – rhythm, rhyme, certain forms of expression, and often by the use of striking imagery. This definition is an uncontroversial one, mapping fairly nicely on to others that I have perused[iii]. And in a superficial way, it does indeed answer the question, “What is a poem?” There is much more to be said on the matter, of course; so much, in fact, that it seems as if poems and answers to the question of the poem’s quiddity exist almost in equal number. Martin Heidegger, for instance, in replying to a variant of our question ponderously declares that “We hardly understand the question, today.” Indeed, philosophers have made interesting, if somewhat heavy weather out of it: the late Charles Stevenson, an American analytic philosopher, for instance, breaks our question down into a series of subsidiary ones, starting with an account of the general meaning of questions that begin with “What is…?”, and so forth. We need not detain ourselves with all of this however. Eliseo Vivas addressed our question in a 1954 piece handily entitled “What is a poem?” [iv] He confirmed the definition above in broad strokes proclaiming the poem to be “a linguistic artifact”. But, to what purpose is a poem committed? An important “function” of the poem, he said, “is to organize the primary data of experience that can be exhibited in and through words.” But, he goes on, a poem“does not imitate or designate existent or imaginary things which can be apprehended independent of the poem.” A poem does its work not by imitating (a prevalent theory concerning the work performed by art, in fact reason enough for Plato to have condemned poetry), but by revealing “a self-sufficient world”, and by means of the world constituted by the work of the poem as it “lingers in memory as a redolence,” we can grasp the “actual world in which we live.” Without the poem, this world, this actual lived and quotidian world of ours, somewhat terrifyingly, “remains an inchoate, unstructured chaos.” Though we need not recapitulate the herculean Kantian (or is it neo-Kantian?) labours that Vivas performs to arrive at his surprising conclusion, we should nevertheless pause again to marvel at this destination. To reiterate: what a poem reveals “is a new world, whose features, prior to the act of poetic revelation, were concealed from us…” When we no longer attend to the poem, its radiant world “will again be concealed from us … and we return to the world of affairs and of things in which we normally live.” Does this conception of the poem seem correct? Is this not…well, too fanciful, too “poetic?” In its defense, it seems consistent with a common sense view that we humans seem capable of saying new things: though our words may refer in some straightforward way to things already known, we realize that language is not a closed system. The world seems young enough that there are still novel things to notice, and poets attend to such things, and alert us to them in the wake of their passing.

Philosophical gyres aside (and there is awfully substantial technical literature on the topic, much of it best left uninspected), we typically know a poem when we see or hear it. For instance, there were some grumblings among Dublin school children who were expected to memorize his poetry, that Seamus Heaney was difficult to force into the “old noggin”. This was seen as a short-coming on his part. Whatever the merits of the claim it was nevertheless clear, however, that Heaney writes poems; they are, in the views of his youthful detractors, simply not all that good. Seamus_Heaney

Heaney writes several types of poems, in fact. A couple of examples: “Follower” from the collection “Death of a Naturalist” (1966) is metrical, and full of fine sentiment and vivid image: “My father worked with a horse plough,/His shoulders globed like a full sail strung/Between the shafts and the furrow./The horses strained at his clicking tongue.” The poem ends with the metrical, repetitious, and heartbreaking lines: “I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,/Yapping always. But today/It is my father who keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away.” All elements that one might suppose make for a memorable piece are deployed. (Perhaps you’ll be motivated to try committing it to memory – give it the old school try!). But take another one, again a short piece in a sequence called “Lightenings”, in the collection “Seeing Things” (1991). “The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise/Were all at prayers inside the oratory/A ship appeared above them in the air./The anchor dragged along behind so deep/It hooked itself into the altar rails”. The poem concludes with a shipman disappearing… “Out of the marvellous as he had known it.” No especially heightened language (though “at prayers inside the oratory” and “out of the marvellous” are very nice indeed), no rhyme, indeed the punctuation – that colon – forces us to pause a reflective moment or two, in a way that is disruptive to memorizing. The imagery is striking, however, so striking in fact, that I had to stop for several stunned minutes (once again) before moving to reflect on the piece. It is a poem indeed, but our memory is less assisted here by rhythm, rhyme, or by the form of expression, though the image of that imperiled ship is memorable.

The two Heaney poems serve as a useful contrast in another respect as well: the younger Heaney scampers across the sod behind his father, whereas in the “Lightenings” snippet he contemplates the less tangible world of the “marvellous,” it is a meditation he made after his father’s death. The first poem is all plod and sod and stiffened arm: attentive, that is, to a world of soil and farm; the second is oratories, and altars, and imaginary anchors; it is a poem that starts not with the world, but with a reference to a text, “The annals say:…”. It is a poem directed at the un-worldly, a realm beyond ours. Now, it would be too much, I agree, to say that that these two poems – the memorable and the less so, the earth-bound and the ethereal – reflect the terminal points of a sort of evolution of poetic utterances (an evolution from Homer, let us say, to Hopkins); nonetheless these poems define a wide spectral range of verse. With this said though, poetry itself occupies an interesting liminal point in a wide spectrum opened up between speech and the written prose. On the one hand poems are made for reciting: Heaney, for instance, is a noted performer of his own work. On the other hand, poets write, even when they write for another’s voice, (whether that voice is provided in a public reading or is the voice of the muttering poetry reader cradled in an armchair, glass of scotch in hand.)

Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky attempts to clarify the terrain of poetry by explaining that his poems are written “with my voice for your voice.”[v] He says this is a context of stressing a distinction between hip-hop and poetry: hip-hop culture emphasizes performance, and Pinsky in a video-recorded monologue states that if a “kid comes to poetry… through performance of course that’s a very natural and it’s very natural that at first you do things that ape what is so powerful in the culture. You imitate what is being turned out very very effectively and very powerfully and I think performances can be great art. I just make a distinction between an art in which the medium is the audience’s body.” [Unedited transcription; the scattered italisized emphases are mine]. Clearly Pinsky’s is a genetic argument – the oral performance of hip-hop can be a way station en route to poetry, something you do “at first”; something (significantly) that involves the body; but it is an imitation. Also something aPoetry Usessociated with nature, indeed it is “aping”. Said another way, oral and performative poetry, comes first, after which comes more formal poetry, which we can assume Pinsky holds in higher esteem. But poetry at the same time remains close to oral tradition; indeed this is exactly why Pinsky must try to distinguish the two.

Heaney’s poems reveal elements of the ontogenetic passage of the poem – recall that the earlier of his poems examined above, though surely not hip-hop, is the more memorizable and is besides linked to the world of brute facts. His later poem is less memorizable and is linked to the possibility of a heaven. That poem begins and ends with (and in) a text. In both cases though the poems do the work of poetry which is, to light up the world in an original way. The world of soil and soul is revealed to us, unconcealed, in a particular way. This, at least, as we have seen is Vivas’ conception of the work of the poem. But he is not the only one to have arrived at this conclusion. Martin Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art uses similar language in describing the work of the work of art which is, he tells us, the “work of unconcealment”. And for Heidegger “All art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what it is, is, as such essentially poetry.” I have sketched the landscape of poetry (or the poems examined here, at least) graphically (above). Formal poetry “unconceals” either the actual brute world in which we live, or an ethereal possible world. It produces a text, but it is a text that reaches out toward the oral – a poem begs to be uttered.

In his 2007 essay that asks one more time (a last time, for us), “What is a poem?”[vi], Brett Bourbon reminds us that “most will care little for any poetry but that which they hear in songs they like or remember.” When we recite a poem, it shifts us away from the text towards a world of utterance – the voice of the poet becomes our voice. In the terms of the little diagram above, to recite is to affect a shift along the diagram’s primary axis. Uttering with another’s voice is not, as French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau Ponty (finally!) reminds us, merely to produce a “sonorous pattern which is nothing but sounds in the air”.[vii] To recite another’s poem is to be hurled into that poet’s world. To recite a poem “by heart”, in the sense that I have developed it here, is to recite it by linking it to our body’s memory, and to have what we already know renewed and intensified by what the poet can show us. When, finally, we are asked what a poem “means” we can answer in much the same way that Robert Schumann did when asked to explain a musical composition, by promptly playing, or in our case, reciting it again.[viii]

I am no longer able to learn by heart in my sense of that phrase. Almost in the way that the ability to recite the Odyssey was lost, apparently, as the pre-literate oral culture gave way to an alphabetically-based one, my memorizing skills declined as my reading skills increased. That year, though, I won 3rd place in the Father Mathew Feis; I won it because I was lost in a world of Scovell’s making. “Boy Fishing” may not be a “big” poem, nevertheless as I recited it, pinned to a Dublin stage, it illuminated the estuarine river in Camp and my heart cried out to that world at a time when I wanted some of that world to simply fade away.

Thanks to Dr Paula Dempsey, DePaul Library, for help in (re)locating the Scovell poem and some assisting with etymological references. Thanks also to Christina Yang for reminding me of the Schumann reference.

(In a loose sense this is Part III of a series started with And the World Hummed Back and followed by Kant's body).

[Photos in order: A Heneghan Boy Fishing (by Liam Heneghan); “The School Bag” (by Liam Heneghan); “Pune, India, Dec 2010” (by Randall Honold); “Seamus Heaney” from Wikipedia; “Formal vs. Oral Poetry” (by Liam Heneghan).]

Liam and Chris Green will be hosting and several others will be reading at Lincoln Hall, 2424 North Lincoln Avenue on Monday, March 7, 2011, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. for the launch of Brute Neighbors: Urban Nature Poetry, Prose and Photography, edited by DePaul's Chris Green and Liam Heneghan.

[i] A little more work is merited here, I think, but the source is Calliope, Mar2001, Vol. 11 Issue 7, p38. by heart. (1997). In American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, The. Retrieved from

[ii] Mary Heneghan, Facebook comment, 24th February, 2011.

[iii] OED: “A piece of writing or an oral composition, often characterized by a metrical structure, in which the expression of feelings, ideas, etc., is typically given intensity or flavour by distinctive diction, rhythm, imagery, etc.; a composition in poetry or verse.”; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: “A verbal composition designed to convey experiences, ideas, or emotions in a vivid and imaginative way, characterized by the use of language chosen for its sound and suggestive power and by the use of literary techniques such as meter, metaphor, and rhyme.”

[iv] Eliseo Vivas, 1954, What is a poem? The Sewanee Review, Vol 62, 578-577.

[vi] Brett Bourbon, 2007, What is a Poem? Modern Philology, Vol 105 27-43.

[vii] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1973 “The Specter of Pure Language,” in The Prose of the. World, ed.-Claude Lefort, trans. John O'Neill (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press)

[viii] In George Steiner, Real Presences (Faber and Faber 1989