A journey to remember

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
BY HEART: 101 POEMS TO REMEMBER. Edited by Ted Hughes. Faber Pounds 7. 99.

One evening, some years ago, I was being driven through the centre of London by a radio producer friend of mine. We had been in Bexhill interviewing a contributor to a programme about Robert Graves and missed the signs which would have got us more easily on to the A1 going north. Why? Because just south of the river my friend suddenly announced that he was going to recite Milton's "Lycidas", all 193 lines of which he'd recently committed to memory.

The performance lasted as far as Swiss Cottage, and I shall never forget how it gained momentum as we drove around Hyde Park corner and up towards Marble Arch. Line upon line of blank verse, delivered without a hitch and, remarkably, without danger either to the driver or to his amazed, captive audience of one.

I recalled this occasion when I discovered that all 199 lines of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" have been offered as one of Ted Hughes's 101 poems to remember. I'm sure my friend would have risen to the challenge and gone for it rather than for Milton, who is represented by a mere sonnet. This book is an intriguing combination of anthology and advocacy of a lost art, published to coincide with Nat-ional Poetry Day's adoption of By Heart as this year's theme.

Many of the poems are extremely well known, though there are a few splendid, idiosyncratic surprises such as F R Higgins's "Song for the Clatter-Bones" (Crow might have sung that one!) and "The Small Bird to the Big", a translation from the Japanese of C Hatakeyama by William Empson. Speeches from Shakespeare are included with their first lines given as titles but with no indication of the play from which they are taken. Everyone will recognise Hamlet's "To be, or not to be", but it would have been a good idea to indicate the source of others. The juxtaposition of old and new is imaginative and, as a mini version of The Rattle Bag and The School Bag, By Heart is packed with fresh fruit and chestnuts, the latter being worn with a new gloss conferred by Hughes's enthusiasm. As the "these I have loved" offering of a major contemporary poet, it is of the greatest interest.

However, the book sets out to be more than that. Hughes's introduction, "Memorising Poems", an unacknowledged reprint of his "Afterword" to The School Bag, suggests in detail - and by means of a step-by-step, word-and-image-association demonstration of how to memorise Hopkins' "Inversnaid" - techniques for learning a poem by heart. "The whole point, " he explains, "is to get the poem, by any means, fair or foul, into the head. " This involves a combination of tips for taking and linking together mental snapshots and for keeping "the audial faculty wide open".

Some of the connections will be surreal, ridiculous even, but underlying the process is Hughes's conviction that "the release of playful imagination also releases energy, and the brain soon becomes skilful at what it enjoys". Here he might almost be writing about poetic composition, and indeed learning by heart is in itself a process of re-creation, the exact opposite of learning by rote. It is this emphasis, above all, that makes By Heart valuable.

I had a moment or two's misgivings when I read the publishers' claim that the book offers a "mental gymnasium" for training and exercising the memory - shades of the wall bars and vaulting horse began to close uncomfortably upon me - but Ted Hughes is no martinet PE instructor, and By Heart turns out to be as pleasurable as it is challenging.

John Mole

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