Discussion of poetry Poetry Readers and reading

Can you actually recite a famous poem? Bet you can’t.

I thunk me a thought these past few days, which was this: people were telling huge fibs about poetry, judging by a news story published in the UK on this year’s National Poetry Day, October 7. The story featured a poll carried out by a firm with the oddly spelled name, Perspectus Global. The teeny-tiny poll of 2,000 adults (consider there are +/- 66.8 million adults living in the UK in 2019) identified “the nation’s” favourite 25 poems. (“The nation”, my foot.) The report about the poll also stated that that one in 10 adults (of the 2000 surveyed) – so 200 people out of 66.8 million – “claim they can confidently recite famous poems and a romantic eight percent have written poetry for a lover”.

The last two findings: whopping exaggerations. “Claim” is the right word here. Methinks that the real number of people who can recite “famous” poems, and write poetry themselves, and who actually read poetry collections, is lower: a minuscule minority of the total UK population. But of course I have not done a poll to prove my point.

People might be publishing and self-publishing more poetry collections than before (especially after a lock-down year spent navel-gazing, Internet-roaming and looking for the meaning of life), and the sales of poetry books might be increasing for a change, but that is probably due to the influence of singer-songwriters and rappers. People who can now write and record their own songs and lyrics are looking for inspiration in poetry (stuff still has to rhyme even it it’s not poetry!), and music fans take the trouble to listen to but also also to read the lyrics of their favourite songs.

Poetry is just plain difficult

The point is: poetry is the most obscure genre in English Literature – expressing yourself in writing is hard for most people, expressing yourself in imagery is even harder, and expressing that imagery within rules for verse form, and rhyme, and rhythm is even harder. It’s not normal to want to force words into a particular shape, like trying to get mould a lump of dough into the Eiffel Tower! Or to pin a handful of wet tissues into an arty shape on a wall. It just doesn’t come easy.

Cartoon from The Best of Private Eye 1987 – 1989 – The Satiric Verses, by Salmonella Bordes, Private Eye Productions & André Deutsch, London, 1989

To read poetry takes effort. To remember a poem in full and be able to recite it means that you have had to make a conscious effort. These reasons are why there are greeting cards with rhymes on them, and why people make a living writing those rhymes. Writing anything in rhyme takes constant practice.

I can sense a poem coming up

Right now, can you make a four-line verse about…let’s see, today is Thursday?..so a poem about Thursday. I can, probably not that well, here goes:

Today is Thursday and I write the poem
while sitting at my iMac here in my home.
The fact is that writing a poem is a chore
And might end like a cliche, or worse, like a bore.

Two minutes – no edits. I do this a lot. It’s a terrible habit!

All this means that your average person in the street is hardly likely to be able to write love poems and, off the top of their head, recite a classic poem like “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day” – which, according to the silly survey, is the favourite poem of Britons in 2021.

The 25 greatest poems listed in the poll

What makes me even more suspicious of this piece of non-news, are some of the items on the list of “greatest poems ever written”:

Source: Daily Mail UK (sorry about that)
  1. Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?, by William Shakespeare
  2. Daffodils, by William Wordsworth
  3. The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe
  4. If -, by Rudyard Kipling
  5. Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll
  6. Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou
  7. How Do I Love Thee?, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  8. She Walks in Beauty, by Lord Byron
  9. Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats
  10. Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas
  11. The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes
  12. Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  13. Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen
  14. The Tyger, by William Blake
  15. Paradise Lost, by John Milton
  16. Remember, by Christina Rosetti
  17. Dis Poetry, by Benjamin Zephaniah
  18. The Lady of Shalott, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  19. For Women Who are ‘Difficult’ To Love, by Warsan Shire
  20. Yes, I’ll marry You My Dear, by Pam Ayres
  21. The Way My Mother Speaks, by Carol Ann Duffy
  22. The Point, Kae Tempest
  23. (I Married A) Monster From Outer Space, by John Cooper Clarke
  24. Cat D, by George the Poet
  25. Cocoon, by Hollie Poetry

That poll title should have been: “The 25 poems in English, published in the UK, in print form, within the average adult lifespan of the 2000 people participating in this poll, that received more than 1 mention and that they could remember”. Or something like that.

Whether the poll was stimulated or open-ended, we don’t know of course. The pollster probably had a ready drawn up list of possible entries and when faced with blank incomprehension, probably recited a few lines to which people responded like, “Oh, yeah mate! I like that one! Yeah! Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…uhhh…thou art…as pretty as a…rose in May?!?”

Yeah well, that was Shakespeare, mister.

That list, for me, is when the wheels really came off this story: Under Milk Wood, in 10th place, dear silly surveyors, is a play for voices – its listening length is an hour and 45 minutes!, and it has speaking parts for more than 20 characters! So which parts, pray, of that long poem, would the voters have referred to?

At no. 15 is Paradise Lost, by John Milton, which is an epic poem of over ten thousand lines. Seriously!? I know the Daily Mail should be called the Daily Wail, considering it is rife with sensationalism, clickbait and very, very bad news reporting. But I must say, this article plummeted it into new depths of ridiculousness.

Which ones do you know? No, really…!

Being a Persnickety Bear of Little Brain who does actually dabble in writing poems (more like rhymes really), I have read many of these poems, and not just once, many times. The ones I am familiar with are:

  1. Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?, by William Shakespeare (...thou are more lovely and more temperate…)
  2. Daffodils, by William Wordsworth (…a crowd, a host of golden daffodils…)
  3. The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe (…quoth the raven, nevermore…)
  4. If -, by Rudyard Kipling (…if, blah blah blah, then you are a man, my son…)
  5. Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll (…come to my arms, my beamish boy!)
  6. How Do I Love Thee?, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (…let me count the ways…)
  7. She Walks in Beauty – Lord Byron (…like the night…)
  8. Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas (…the sloe-black, slow, black, crow-black, fishing-boat-bobbing sea…)
  9. The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes (…the highwayman came riding, riding, riding, up to the old inn door…)
  10. Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (…a shattered visage lies…)
  11. The Tyger, by William Blake (…burning bright, in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry…)
  12. The Lady of Shalott, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (…The mirror cracked from side to side, out flew the web and opened wide! A curse has come upon me! cried the Lady of Shallot!)

Time for a quiz!

So, clever readers, do you think you can actually recite the opening verses or lines of any of the poems on the list of “25 Greatest Poems Of All Time”?
Yes, right now, yes you there, staring at the screen!
Really? You can? Ha!
Well, why don’t you test yourself?
Answers are on page 2 of this post, link at the bottom of the page – No cheating by peeking!!!

Can I poeticize at you?

And, having cast scorn on those people who cannot recite poems, which poems can I recite, at the drop of a hat, right this moment, as I’m writing?

Unfortunately, nothing that would’ve given me high marks for “Recitation” at the school attended by Laura and Mary Ingalls in the Little House books.

I must add that I often recite poems at the top of my lungs, or make up rude versions of well known poems, simply to be contrary and irritate my long-suffering Significant Other. My mum always said, when I was about to burst into song, “Oh, please don’t sing at me”. Like throwing stones at her. I did not sing well. When I start quoting poetry my poor S.O. gets a look on his face that plainly means, “Oh, please don’t recite poems at me”. I don’t blame him.

The poems that I will always remember are the ones my parents read to us when we were children (not all were rhymes, some were proper poetry like Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses), and the lyrics of the songs from the children’s films that we saw over and over again, like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book.

And of course, my favourite poems by my favourite, grown-up poets, like Brian Bilston. But alas, that does not mean I can recite anything by them, much as I love every line. Oh, Mr. Bilston, you pipe-smoking genius, there is only one line in my favourite poem by your good self, Penguin Awareness, that I can sort of recall…though the image is clear in my head: a sad penguin, having padded to the freezer and opened the door, rests his head on a nice cold shelf:

"...thinking about the hand
that life has dealt him
and I wonder
if his heart is melting."

Aw! Snifff.

I can recite Jabberwocky and a couple more by Lewis Carroll. Unfortunately I can recite quite a few of the hair-raising, wickedly funny poems in Cautionary Tales for Children, by Hilaire Belloc, from 1907 (blame my parents), and a couple of the limericks and nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear. Here is the first part of my favourite “Cautionary Tale” by Hilaire Belloc:

Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death

by Hilaire Belloc

"Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not She
Discovered this Infirmity."

Doesn’t Matilda look deliciously snarky? You can download the entire book, with the illustrations, from Project Gutenberg.

The one full-size poem I can recite

I can recite full verses from a handful of English poems for grownups, a couple in Dutch, and one or two in German. But now that I think about it, the only poem-for-grownups that I can actually recite from memory, from start to finish, is this one, which for some reason I read once and could never forget. It is called To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train, and is by Frances Darwin Cornford, and I have never forgotten it because thank goodness it is only eight lines and because I thought that I was like the fat lady that she writes about:

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

(from Poems, 1910)

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much? 

Final Foughts on Fiendish Forms

(Foughts? See? Fought/Thought? An alliterative poetic pun.)

So there you go – these are the things I thunk about when I read about that Poetry Day Poll. Why do people make these claims that do not hold water? I think it’s about status. People think that spouting off about poetry makes them look intellectual, educated or sophisticated. They think it shows that they have a huge vocabulary. They like to think of themselves as “special”. The weird thing is, that for many centuries, expressing yourself in poetry was just the normal way of expressing yourself, period, in certain circles in China and Japan. But more on that in another post.

Do let me know your score out of 12 in the comments section. If you have the nerve, that is. 😁

1 comment on “Can you actually recite a famous poem? Bet you can’t.

  1. Dit gaan 0 uit 12 wees…Ter verdediging: ek kan darem onderskei tussen ware digkuns en rymelary 😉 Die Persnickety Bear is ‘n ware digter. Dankie vir ‘n boeiende en vermaaklike inskrywing!

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