If I were Prime Minister for a day, I would rule that everyone should learn a poem by heart to recite out loud.
I’d stand at the pulpit outside number 10 and explain the joy of reading poetry out loud and the gift of having a store of poems inside your head. I’d mention that Wordsworth’s father encouraged the young William to read and learn the classics so he would have a ‘golden store of books’. Since earliest times, poetry was celebrated as a great gift of memory: the ancient Greeks even invoked the goddess Mnemosyne, meaning ‘memory’, at the start of their poems.
It could be a very short poem. There is a poem that hits me in the heart and it is only two words long – it’s by the Scottish writer George MacDonald and it’s called The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs. It goes like this:
Like a song, poetry cries out for a voice to give it life off the page. A poem isn’t a song, but nor is it prose. It sits somewhere between music and everyday language. I’d say a poem is words arranged musically.
T S Eliot famously said that, ‘poetry can communicate before it is understood’. A poem can be enjoyed without knowing or worrying about what all the words mean. Decades after first reading William Blake’s The Tyger, I know that the terrifying creature is ‘burning bright / In the forests of the night’; I still hear that pulsing rhythm as the sound of huge paws echoing through the darkness. Before I knew what rhythm and rhyme were, I felt them. Then, as now, poetry communicated before it was understood.
I have seen a six-year-old reciting Spike Milligan’s Nonsense poem On the Ning Nang Nong and then his eighty-year-old grandfather remembering aloud a passage from Othello he had learned long ago at school. I could have sworn that each grew a few inches taller before my eyes, out of pride and delight as they drew on their golden store of words.
I don’t really want to be prime minister for a day. I do know that poetry won’t stop a war nor fix all the world’s problems. However it can play its part. Salman Rushdie puts this well, ‘A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world.’ This National Poetry Day, learn a poem by heart, recite it out loud and know that great poets have put the best words in the best order to enlighten you and illuminate the world a little, and may the harmony of the words and sounds keep you company in times of need.
Allie’s new collection A Poem for Every Day of the Year is out now, and is one of the books we are recommending on National Poetry Day.