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An Olympics for the poetic heart

25 January 2013

Trevor Barnes applauds a new scheme to encourage learning poetry in schools 

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 legacy.

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 extra time.

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 themselves.

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 within me.

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.

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