I am a kind of slightly wonky poetry jukebox
As anyone who loves poetry will testify, when you learn a good poem, you make a good friend.
I propose universal saying lessons in English poetry … this should involve learning two or three poems a term, off by heart
It is sometimes said of the modern Tory party that it has become a little bit vanilla. A vital and superhuman effort has been made over the past five years to persuade the press and the public that we have changed, that we have made various accommodations with reality, that we finally get the point that Britain in 2009 is not the same as Britain in 1959.
It has been a triumphant and election-winning transformation, and is naturally resented by the diehards – some of whom may read this newspaper. They yearn for the good old days when acned Tory thrusters would mount the rostrum and call on their fellow-countrymen to “stop the wot from Bwussels!” They want to hear some of that old-time religion: cut taxes, bang em up, kick em out, crack down on single mums – and all they get is the sweet reason and common sense of the current Opposition.
So, in a shameless attempt to appeal to that constituency – the listless Tory carnivores starved of their normal diet – I want to propose a policy that is both essential and modest, and which will yet be denounced by the Left as the last word in bug-eyed, foam-flecked, capillary-popping reactionary conservatism. You want something Right-wing, my friends? You want a really hard-core Tory policy? Then you should have come with me on a trip I recently made to a school far from London, in a county I will not shame by naming.
It was a good school, a grammar school, and the kids were well-mannered, bright, self-confident. They were all bound for university, and since we were talking about poetry, I asked them casually how many poems they knew by heart. There was a silence. I looked again at the 30 sixth-formers. “What, none?” I said. I couldn’t believe it. Here was the cream of young England, exposed by their teachers to all that is best in our literature, and not so much as a sonnet had lodged in their skulls.
I am afraid I was filled with rage, despair, and a desire to do something about it. My teachers probably spent more time in Japanese POW camps than they did at teacher-training college, and yet they had one utensil of instruction for which I will always be grateful. They made us learn stuff, and spout it out, and we blushed if we got it wrong; and the result is that I am a kind of slightly wonky poetry jukebox. There must be thousands of texts in there: snatches, fragments and large numbers of whole poems. I could do you a dozen Shakespeare sonnets, the whole of Lycidas (186 lines of the thing) and the first 100 lines of the Iliad in Greek.
As anyone who loves poetry will testify, when you learn a good poem, you make a good friend. You have a voice that will pop up in your head, whenever you want it, and say something beautiful and consoling and true. A poem can keep you going when you are driving on a lonely motorway, or when you are trapped on some freezing ledge in the Alps, or when you are engaged in any kind of arduous and repetitive physical activity, and need to keep concentration. When some disaster overwhelms you, or when you are feeling unusually cheerful – or when you are experiencing any human feeling whatever – it is amazing how often some line or phrase will swim to the surface and help to articulate your emotions, to intensify them or to console.
That is why it is so sad that children are no longer learning poetry off by heart, and doubly sad because poetry is the one art form in which the English are unsurpassed. The Germans beat us at classical music. The Americans invented rock and roll. I am afraid that the Italians, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish can all boast a more illustrious roll-call of top painters, and the Russians have produced the greatest novels. But no other nation has ever produced so much high-quality poetry – mainly, I think, because of the language itself.
With half a million words (more than double either French or German), and being an extraordinary confluence of Romance and Teutonic streams, English is uniquely rich in metrical possibilities, in puns, and above all in rhyme. It is the ingenious rhyming and the scanning that makes the poetry stick in the mind, and the tragedy is that these disciplines have been dismissed, over the past few decades, as a bourgeois irrelevance. Children are no longer asked to write stuff that rhymes or scans, and even if they were they would find it tricky, since they no longer have the stock of metrical forms in their heads; and if a representative sample of intelligent 17-year-olds no longer has a single poem to recite, then the greatest talent of the British people is in danger.
So I say to my friends in the Tory high command, here is your policy. Never mind selective admission, which all parties are now too terrified to contemplate. Never mind all this smart stuff about creating “more good schools”. The way to create more good schools is to insist that the kids learn something good. I propose universal saying lessons in English poetry. I propose that this should involve learning two or three poems a term, off by heart. And if necessary let’s put the best declaimers on TV and get them judged by Simon Cowell.
Some will say it is a defect of the corpus of English poetry that much of the best stuff tends to be by dead white males. I say that I don’t give a flying fig. We are in a Kulturkampf, my friends, and the barbarians are winning. What is the point of education, what is the point of civilisation, what is the point of our benighted money-grubbing species and what is the point of Conservatism if we don’t instruct our children in the chief glories of their inheritance? “What shall we conserve?” asked Disraeli. Poetry, that’s what.