Interview: Jean Sprackland, Poet I "Poetry By Heart" Contest Poetry By Heart is a new program in which students memorize two of 130 poems and recite them in a contest. Poet Jean Sprackland, who helped compile the list, says memorizing a poem makes it "something that lives with you forever."

U.K. Asks Students To Learn Poetry 'By Heart,' Not By Rote

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The British government wants schoolchildren to put their cell phones for a few minutes and read - deeply. In fact, to memorize a piece of poetry. It's even funding a nationwide poetry reciting contest called Poetry By Heart. We're joined now from London by the poet Jean Sprackland. Thanks very much for being with us.

JEAN SPRACKLAND: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: And why, in your judgment, should youngster memorize poetry, not just read poems?

SPRACKLAND: Well, I suppose there's a great difference between learning by heart and the old-fashioned, rather dusty phrase learning by rote. So, there's a thought that if you learn by heart, it means you take the poem right into yourself. It becomes part of you. So, it's something that lives with you forever.

SIMON: And do you have the impression that children might have an easier time remembering poetry than adults do?

SPRACKLAND: Absolutely. I think children often commit things to memory without knowing they're doing it. That's why I suppose nursery rhymes and playground rhymes get passed on from generation to generation without anybody making any great effort.

SIMON: What do you remember?

SPRACKLAND: Well, one of the first poems that I began to learn was Keat's poem "Ode to a Nightingale," which of course I know as an adult is one of the great English romantic poems and is full of all this stuff about the ephemeral nature of love and youth and life. But I think probably as a 10- or 11-year-old I just loved the sound of the words, and the way the words tasted and felt in my mouth when I spoke them.

SIMON: Could we hear a little?

SPRACKLAND: Sure. I won't give you the whole poem. It's rather long. Oh, for a draft of vintage that have been culled a long age in the deep delved earth. Tasting of flora and the country green, dense and Provencal song and sun burnt mirth. Oh, for a beaker full of the warm south, full of the true, the blushful hippocream(ph), with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple stained mouth, that I might drink and leave this world unseen. And with thee fade away in the forest dim.

SIMON: That's very nice indeed. I'm inclined to respond by saying, you know, she should have died hereafter. There would have been time for such a word. You know, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps at its petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools, they waited dust to your death. Out, out brief candle - sorry.

SPRACKLAND: That's pretty wonderful.

SIMON: Jean Sprackland is one of the poets who've selected verses for schoolchildren in the United Kingdom to recite for a new contest called Poetry By Heart. Thanks very much, Ms. Sprackland.

SPRACKLAND: Thank you.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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