What You Learn When You Learn a Poem by Heart

Like the writer, you’re compelled to weigh each word.

I’ve just learned by heart another poem — my first in nearly 30 years. The one I chose was A.E. Housman’s ‘On Wenlock Edge’, not for any special reason other than that it’s part of the canon and that it happened to be in an anthology conveniently to hand by the bath when I decided to embark on this new venture.

When I started, it was purely for the mental exercise. (I mean, nice though it is to be able to quote lines of verse, I can’t conceive of many circumstances when I’ll be able to wheel out a phrase like ‘When Uricon the city stood’ and be congratulated for my insight, erudition and pertinency.) But what I discovered during the four baths it took me to pick up those five stanzas is something I’d never properly appreciated before: that to memorise a poem is to inhabit and understand it in a way rarely possible when you just read it. Let me show you, with reference to the first verse.

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves
The gale, it plies the saplings double
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

One of the problems with poetry, the reason most of us read it less often than prose, is that it requires so much attention. Reading a novel is like completing a marathon, but that doesn’t mean that reading a poem is like doing the 100 metres. Rather, it’s another experience entirely, more akin, say, to solving a crossword puzzle with a slight headache while smoking opium. Especially if it’s someone a bit difficult, like Auden.

When you read sustained prose you can afford to skip over stuff. It doesn’t matter if you miss the odd metaphor, because plot and character and style are the thing and there are plenty enough pages to pick up on those. With a poem, though, you have to pay attention. That word ‘snow’, for example. On first glance — mine anyway — you might come away with the impression that Housman is describing a wintry landscape. Which I don’t think he is. Rather he’s borrowing, for effect, snow’s chill and falling thickness. More likely we’re in autumn.

Read the rest at the Spectator.