Books: Lines on the brain

This Thursday, 9 October, is National Poetry Day. Around the country there will be events prize-giving and readings publishers are busy putting out the best of old and new BY HEART: 101 Poems to Remember by Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 7.99 OLD CHESTNUTS WARMED UP

Julia Sutherland
Saturday 04 October 1997 23:02

Here are two collections to celebrate the old-fashioned virtues, dedicated not to the shock of the new but to the "age-old pleasures", as John Murray has it, of the deeply familiar. Both are committed to the notion that every one of us should have a varied store of verse at the tip of the tongue, memorised for delight or instruction and ready to produce at any moment (Murray even goes so far as to specify, rather sweetly, what such moments might be: "while bicycling, walking, sitting in a train or even courting...").

Ted Hughes, a passionate believer in the joys of having poetry by heart, has a firmly teacherly purpose. The Introduction to his selection, entitled "Memorising Poems", is actually a guide and instruction kit to particular techniques of installing poetry firmly in the mind - by connecting conscious memory with a visual image, and making a "mental film of unforgettable images". Whether you can, or whether you want to, try adopting these learning methods, the delineation of them makes fascinating reading - it gives the impression that this way of learning lines might not be too dissimilar to the poet's way of writing them. The only really disappointing thing about this Introduction is that Ted Hughes printed it in his last anthology - The School Bag (Faber pounds 20/pounds 12.99), which he co-edited with Seamus Heaney only a few months ago. It feels a little cheapskate to have it recycled here, verbatim, and so soon.

John Murray's approach is altogether more skittish. His collection is unashamedly personal ("the only criteria for inclusion was that everything in [the book] was at one time or another learnt by heart" by him), and the press release, refreshingly anti-hype, is emblazoned with the message (almost like a health warning): "Old Chestnuts Warmed Up is entirely for pleasure". There are small illustrations and cartoons from Murray's famous stable, polka-dot endpapers and other personal quirks (a picture from "a plate bought in Devon", for instance). The first blow of the holly 'n' mistletoe season, perhaps, but one so good-humoured that it can easily be forgiven its palpable designs on our Christmas stockings.

Its selection, too, is light-hearted: W S Gilbert, Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Lewis Carroll rub shoulders with old-fashioned schoolboy specials ("Lars Porsena of Clusium / By the Nine Gods he swore"; Walter de la Mare's "Listeners"; "Lochinvar") and obvious old chestnuts like "Ozymandias", "To His Coy Mistress", some Keats and Grey's "Elegy". There are some darker moments (Kipling's creepy "Gipsy Vans"), but very few surprises, and absolutely no Wordsworth.

Hughes's selection, on the other hand, has plenty of Wordsworth and masses of Shakespeare, with Donne, Eliot, Yeats, Robert Frost, Heaney, Plath, Pound and more, and obviously reflects an entirely other poetic worldview. The criterion, here again, is that each of the 101 poems is a personal favourite, but also that each is "well-suited to the [learning] method he demonstrates". It is, in its different way, also without many surprises, but it is a useful, dignified, centre-of-the-target and solid selection which transcends its schooly package.

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