IN THE aftermath of the summer euphoria, the Olympic Village, in
east London, makes a mournful sight. Rail passengers picking up
speed out of Liverpool Street invariably turn their heads as they
glide past it, hoping to see something of its much-vaunted
What they confront is a building site populated by workers who
are busily dismantling sporting facilities, in readiness for
another football stadium or another concert venue. Some parts of
the site will not be ready until 2014.
In contrast, something possessed of real longevity was unveiled
across town earlier this month, at the Department for Education. It
was an anthology of verse, published as part of a government scheme
designed not only to pro- mote poetry in secondary schools, but to
revive and encourage the all-but-forgotten discipline of learning
poems by heart.
Pupils between the ages of 14 and 18 will be invited to choose
from a list that includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Burns,
Eliot, and Larkin, and commit two poems to memory to perform in a
"Poetry by Heart" competition. A "grand final" will be held at the
National Portrait Gallery in April.
True, such a venture is an exercise in repack-aging a very old
educational idea, but in these electronic days of video gaming and
iTunes it is no less welcome for all that - and enough for the
former Poet Laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, to praise it for allowing
pupils "to have serious fun while they extend their reading, deepen
their powers of appreciation, and memorise beautiful and intriguing
poems which will enrich their lives for ever".
Those young people who accept the challenge will learn that
memorising a poem requires, in its modest way, all the focus and
commitment demanded of an athlete in the run-up to a competition.
But they will also learn that its rewards do not lie in coming
first, shaving a tenth of a second off the current record, or even
exceeding a personal best.
Learning a poem by heart will win them no prizes (the April
finals excepted, perhaps), but in place of gold, silver, and
bronze, they will have a wealth of pleasure and satisfaction to
last them (pretty much) a lifetime. Or, as the Education Secretary,
Michael Gove, put it, rather eloquently: "To know a poem by heart
is to own a great work of art for ever."
Sport and competition were rightly encouraged in the build-up to
London 2012, but, as the cheering grew louder, all pursuits other
than the physical seemed drowned out. Now that the focus is on Rio,
perhaps we can recalibrate our national priorities in favour of
something more nuanced than .05 of a centimetre, or a late goal in
What the competition proposes is just that. It proposes the
currently unfashionable idea that some things can be worth while
even though they may lack the sort of value that auditors these
days routinely measure in corporate sponsorship or advertising
revenue. It proposes that some endeavours will not be validated by
positions in league tables, but are valuable merely in
Given that there is beauty in numbers, it is strange how we are
said to learn times tables by rote, and poetry by heart. Perhaps
Idid learn by heart that seven sevens are 49, and three eights are
24. Either way, I have never forgotten, and I am infinitely
grateful for the discipline that imprinted the data indelibly
Likewise with poems: each one is a thing of beauty and a joy for
ever. With much of the bequest of the Games still to materialise,
this is surely one legacy on which we can all count.
Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and
other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.