When I was sixteen years old I learnt a poem by heart. This one by Philip Larkin.
I guess the reason I learnt it (I’m sure I’m not the only crabby teenager who did) was that I felt the poem gave me a way of voicing a “truth” I couldn’t voice by myself alone.
After Larkin, I had the odd stab at memorising other poems. But it wasn’t a priority, so no more verse went into my head (or heart) for a couple of decades.
Recently I’ve been learning poems as if my life depended on it (and in some ways I’m starting to think it does).
I go for poems that unsettle me, poems that make me feel something quite intense like a blow to the solar-plexus, or a whomp to the chest from a defibrillator.
Even if I’m not always sure what this feeling is, I’ve realised that if I learn poems “by-heart”, that’s to say with my heart, through my heart, the learning of the poem acts like a kind of “medicine”, giving me something I didn’t even realise I needed, something I probably still lack.
When we beginning learning these heart-poems, we turn to them into “conversations”, both with others and with ourselves; working through whatever it is we need. The poem becomes us, we become the poem. This is an incredibly interesting (and sometimes quite moving) transaction.
Having had 20 years of meditation practice, and a number of years of personal therapy, I also saw how poetry might offer another way of bringing one’s chaotic mind into alignment and composure. Memorising is no doubt a galvanising work-out for brain and heart. Body and mind inseparable.
And it’s fun too! So much fun that I’ve been encouraging other people to do it in various courses and one-to-one trainings.
In terms of my personal practice, I am currently about to start learning 52 poems in 52 weeks for an educational charity fundraiser. More information about that here: https://chuffed.org/project/52-poems-in-52-weeks
Please do donate to the fund if you can, or if you fancy learning a couple of poems yourself and perhaps getting a few people to sponsor you for the S.H.E foundation, do get in touch, as it’s really easy to add your By-Heart initiative to the crowdfunding page on Chuffed.org.
I am a psychotherapist and writer, but I’m also, much of the time, a reader.
My first degree was in literature, and in the two professional MAs that followed (Linguistics and Psychotherapy) I was able to shape my dissertations into explorations of how novels and poems can be taken out of the classroom and into our lives in significant and transformative ways.
As well doing one-to-one psychotherapy, I have also taught Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses, but learning poetry is now my primary Emotion-Regulation & Spiritual-Literary Practice.
Although I see meditation can be an incredibly powerful force in people’s lives (it certainly has been in mine), I have also seen how many people, including me, find it a tough and somewhat lonely discipline to follow.
So how to find a practice that can bring together the pleasures of literature with the transformational, brain-reconfiguring power of mindfulness and heartfelt conversation? The two biggest inspirations for my By Heart Course practice have come from my training with The Reader Organisation, as well as immersing myself in the work and workshops of Kim Rosen.
I also have a podcast where I invite people I like to read me something they love and then we talk about it. If the person also writes poetry themselves, I usually learn and recite as part of the meet one of their poems back to them. If you’d like to listen to that, you can find it here and also on iTunes.