It’s peculiar how those iTunes invoices arrive. Usually, they flop into the inbox days after the crime, that night when you were hormonal and drunkenly crazed enough for those seven fatal letters “MARTIKA” to come crashing into your inbox. In this age of immediate information, of impatient communication, it always takes about 6 days for iTunes receipts to show up. The latest one, however, is a joy. It’s called “Poems by Heart” by Penguin Classics and it’s free. Well, the app is free and a couple of poems are free. Then you have the option to buy £0.69 “packages” that are divided by type. There is the Love Package, the Adventure Package and the Life Innovators package. Curiously, only Part II of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner appears in the Adventures Package. Presumably the other six parts weren’t adventurous enough. Once opened, the poems talk to you into the same bland mid-Western American accent that you occasionally hear when on the telephone to PayPal.
You are then taken through the poem several times. The first time only a couple of words are left out and you have to select from multiple choice on the screen as to what the word might be. Then the correct line is spoken by the invisible mid-Westerner within the machine. The second time more words are left out for you to fill in, and by the fifth time you’re essentially reciting. And bingo! A poem has been learned. It’s probably better for those who cannot learn from reciting something over and over again, which is how I would learn poetry at school, glaze-eyed, fixating on the break time biscuit and woefully repeating a verse from Antony & Cleopatra like an evil mantra to the stolid tones of the headmistressy foot clomping along the wooden hall. We had to learn it as a punishment because one day, when a soft touch teacher had foolishly switched a boring video on featuring a John Webster play being adapted by the BBC in 1978 and featuring cardboard walls, we just pissed about and stopped watching. Many classmates were engaged in tomfoolery and laughter. Yours truly was perusing The Daily Telegraph which used to be delivered to the school library daily. Either way we all got found out and by the next day had to have something which started about “The barge she sat in burnish’d gold….” off by heart. By Heart. Off.
I had a riotously effective short term memory so I was all right. My long term memory is generally cut to ribbons and composed of a variety of scenes or people I think I know but I don’t. I was the same with play scripts. I could learn them quickly, vomit them out, do a play, drink some wine in Pizza Express in some appalling Slapdash-on-Sea for four weeks and then the whole lot would be wiped from my brain within a month. But with poetry, it sticks. It is more adhesive than prose. Not that I can boast the talents of the seriously good poetry memorisers. George Orwell was said to be able to recite 20 or 30 lines of poetry after hearing a poem only once, and Samuel Johnson seems also to have had this strange gift. The rhyme scheme to aide the memorisation process, I guarantee that I could rattle the thing off, and then two weeks later, it is in fact still there. Unlike prose it is neurologically retrievable.
Two winters ago I was stuck on a train to Windsor in the snow. I learned most of a poem by Sir Philip Sidney which was totally miserable and about pursuing intellectual pursuits rather than love that rusted. This was a bad move in a winter where the darkness was closing in and there was no heating on my train in the snow and I became thoroughly depressed and eventually it wasn’t the poem by my train and my brain that rusted. I still remember vulgar, vast bursts of Shakespeare from drama school, but it’s hard to find it under the tights and the tap shoes and the pungent whiff of professional cruelty that characterised the board-treading years. If Shakespeare could only see what is being done in his name all over the regional theatres of Britain he’d vomit. As it is, I think Shakespearean poetry makes sense to some people and is an utter enigma to others. Some actors pretend to understand it lest their cover be blown and they are accused of being Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon man, but really I don’t think anyone under the age of 25 can have much of a clue as to the depths of what Shakey is driving at. I imagine being Shakespeare’s mistresses (a cast of many) must have spent most of the 1590s nodding going “Yes, dear, lovely sonnet rhyming sequence.” “Oh yes, dear, I love that poem you wrote for me” whilst scratching herpes scars and hoping Kit Marlowe was around for a friendly game of “hide the play script”.
I am hoping my iTunes “Poems by Heart” will cause my sense of fear surrounding poetry to absent itself. Unforunately I don’t understand much of it, avoided it whenever possible during my degree and hated writing about it. It just doesn’t work for me – which is odd, because I love lyrics and I used to love standing in a draughty room and shouting the words of dead writers at strangers (otherwise known as acting) but I miss a loop occasionally with verse. I got my lowest mark ever in my degree on William Blake. I think it’s because no one can decide whether Blake was a genius or just a fruitcake. Or both. He is touched by some fallible madness, and I didn’t have a clue what half of “Songs of Innocence and Experience” was about. I faked it. For 3,000 words, which is no mean feat, I can tell you. And it didn’t work. That Blake bastard dragged my overall percentage down.
The trick is to learn a couple of lines of poetry in the morning and then stop. Pick up the poem again at lunchtime to learn the next two lines. Break off until a few hours later, before you learn the next few lines and so on. The great thing about the iTunes app is that echoes of schoolday poems get regurgitated back at you “Cannon to the right of the them, cannon to the left of them, cannon to the front of them…” and all that malarkey about a man riding “up to the old inn door”. It’s all buried in the frontal lobe somewhere, and it is with surprise and alarm that we rediscover it. A poem a day is impossible. But, a poem a week? How difficult can that be? Which one of you will rise to the challenge and learn one by this time next week?
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