Poetry by heart

April is National Poetry Month, and rather than write about how we should all read more poetry (that’s just a basic assumption), I’ll suggest something more specific: go back to a poem you memorized in school, and re-learn it.

Memorizing comes with repetition, but when you no longer repeat the poem, lines tend to go missing. As late as grade 9 I had to memorize poems in school, and still remember one called “Leisure” by— Davies? No, that was the teacher’s name. Anyway, it starts like this:

What is this life if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs
and stare as long as sheep or cows

That line about cows sticks in my mind, because I’ve seen how cattle can stare. Once, on a visit to some relatives in B.C., my husband and I canoed on a small lake, going up a channel that ran along a pasture. The cattle all looked up from their grazing, then turned and ambled over to the water’s edge to give us the full benefit of their gaze.

The poem goes on:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
where squirrels hide their nuts in grass;
da dum da dum da dum da dum
(something about Beauty here)
A poor life this, if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare.

Clearly, there are some pieces missing. Luckily, The Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry with its huge database (accessible for free if your public library subscribes to it, as Winnipeg’s does) exists for situations just like this.

Speaking of memorizing poetry, Poetry In Voice is a new poetry recitation contest for Canadian high school students, sponsored by the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. Actually, it’s not national yet; this year it’s a pilot project involving students at just twelve Ontario schools, but it’s supposed to become a national program in 2013. In the meantime, schools can use the materials provided on the web site as a resource for their own programs and contests.

For those involved in the official contest, there’s a nice bit of money at stake, both for individual contestants and for their school libraries. As far as media attention goes, the focus will probably be on the winners and the prizes. The real value of the program, though, will be in encouraging students and their teachers to read, speak, memorize (and enjoy) poetry.


  1. In the 5th grade, our teacher would write a line of poetry on the blackboard each day. We would memorize the line & a few (or many) days later, the whole poem. One that I still can recite from heart is “High Flight” by John Gillespie McGee Jr. 19 year old american pilot killed in action while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force.” (We also memorized something about the poet.) This was in 1942or 1943, & the boys finally found a poem that captured their attention. The girls liked it too, it is 70 some years later & I still know it.

    I livein Maarblehead OH, at the tip of the
    arblehead peninsula & many years ago, we could look out over the lake & see Pelee Island. Then we would s Iay, Look! I can see Canada!”
    I can’t remember the last time I saw Pelee. Perry’s monument at Put-in-Bay grows dimmer each year. As do my eyes.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I was struck by your remark about the boys finally finding a poem that captured their attention. That seems to happen to many people; they think they don’t like poetry until they find a poem on a subject that interests them.

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