By aiming to discover the UK’s most memorised poems, a new research project – backed by a former Poet Laureate – will explore the poems that live in our collective memory, and the value of keeping poetry in our heads and hearts instead of just the page and screen. Is there a poem inside your head?

This research feeds into a wider debate about locations of knowledge, the short-circuiting of learning and the ‘out-sourcing’ of human memory to digital devices

Debbie Pullinger

On this year’s National Poetry Day (2 October), themed ‘Remember!’, the University of Cambridge will launch the first nationwide survey to find the UK’s most memorised poems. The survey is part of a research project investigating how our relationship to poetry changes when it’s committed to memory.

The Poetry and Memory Project, supported by former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, aims to investigate how memorisation and recitation affect our understanding and appreciation of poetry – how, for example, poems might act as an emotional resource, develop an ear for language, and play a role in memories of a personal or communal past.

The researchers are asking the public to contribute to their research through a national online survey (with a print-and-post option available). Participants are asked what poem they know by heart, and what it means for them. To take part, visit:

The site contains audio clips of poetic reflections, such as a poet remembering his mother reciting John Masefield and a comedian finding a life manual in T S Eliot.

Poetry memorisation, once a staple of British education, declined dramatically over the last century, and was controversially reinstated on the English primary curriculum by Michael Gove – the then Secretary of State for Education – in 2012. But researchers from the University’s Faculty of Education say that how these changes have affected our relationship with poetry remains largely unexamined.

“Whilst there is evidence of reviving interest in memorising and reciting poems, both within and outside education, there is practically no research on the particular value of these embodied experiences of poetry. And whilst many – notably poets themselves – argue that poems communicate much of their meaning through sound, classroom activities tend to focus on the poem on the page, and on poetry as a textual construct, particularly once you get to GCSE stage. It’s like studying music by only reading the score,” said project researcher Dr Debbie Pullinger.

“In an age where we can summon thousands of poems onto a smartphone in seconds, the idea of keeping a sonnet in our head may appear rather pointless. So this research also feeds into a wider debate about locations of knowledge, the short-circuiting of learning and the ‘out-sourcing’ of human memory to digital devices.”

Sir Andrew Motion said: “This project is fascinating and important. And it reveals a web of truths that we too often fail to notice: that our pleasure in poetry is as natural as breathing, that it forms a part of our foundation as individuals, that the poems we commit to memory stay with us for ever, and grow as we grow.”

Pullinger says that the researchers are not looking for ‘GCSE English answers’ or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’:

“We want to know what significance this particular poem holds for you. This might be something to do with the meaning, but it could also be to do with the sound. It may be that there’s one line which is particularly special. It may be that you associate the poem with a particular occasion or period of your life. Or it could have no significance for you at all – and we want to know about that, too.

“We really want to hear from anyone at all who has a poem in their head.”

The team hope to reveal the UK’s by-heart ‘top ten’, and will be combining survey data with other research approaches as part of the wider investigation – including an analysis of the past 100 years of educational literature, in-depth participant interviews, and studies in schools adopting these practices.

The researchers believe their findings may have particular relevance at a time when teaching of poetry is seen as problematic. A number of reports towards the end of the 2000s, such as the Ofsted report Poetry in Schools, found that poetry was the worst taught of all literary forms, with many teachers having difficulty teaching it and feeling deeply unconfident.

A similar picture emerged from a small-scale Cambridgeshire study, conducted in 2012 in primary and secondary schools by the same project team, which indicated that – although a few classes benefitted from inspirational teachers – the overall poetry picture was extremely patchy.

So if knowing and speaking are found to be vital modes for understanding and appreciating poetry, a reassessment of their place within poetry teaching may be part of the answer.

That, the researchers say, is why research in this area is so important – because at the moment, opinion is divided.

“For some people, there is nostalgia for a shared poetic repertoire within public memory, but for others, negative associations with rote learning and the stress of enforced performance is very strong,” said Pullinger.

“Had we been doing this research a hundred or even fifty years ago, the results would have been more predictable. Up until 1944, children memorised ‘staple poems’. But in the second half of the century, poetry learning became deeply unfashionable within education – the baby thrown out with the rote-learning bathwater.

“And yet, many people do still know a poem or two, for all sorts of reasons. So that’s what we’d like to know: what are the poems that live in people’s memories, at this moment, in October 2014? What poem or poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation?”




Is there a poem inside your head? Get involved:

• For more details and to do the survey, visit:
• Hear people reflecting on poems they know by heart for the project on Soundcloud
• Follow the project on Twitter and Facebook, and help spread the word

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