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Poets Andrew Motion and Adrian Mitchell
"Dismal memories of dusty classrooms
 real 28k

Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 10:47 GMT
Pupils urged to learn poetry by heart
girls reading
Motion advocates learning by heart, not by rote
The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has said he wants children to learn poems by heart at school.

Delivering the Arts Council/RSA Annual Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in central London, he praised the recent introduction of the Literacy Hour for primary schoolchildren in England.

andrew motion
Andrew Motion: "No return to bad old ways"
It was "one of the bravest and most valuable initiatives taken by the Department of Education and Employment," he said.

But the need to improve grammar, spelling and comprehension must be seen merely as a first step on the road to boosting poetry awareness.

Mr Motion also suggested that teachers should be given specialist tuition by real-life poets.

"The whole business of learning by heart has a fantastically bad reputation," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.


"I have very dismal memories of dusty classrooms, being made to slog through things, but that is of course absolutely not what I'm wanting to return to.

adult reading
Learning poems provides "luggage" for adult life, says Motion
"I'm wanting to argue for a place to be retained for learning poems by heart - a phrase which I much prefer to 'learning by rote' because it quite rightly emphasises how precious and inward the business of learning can be.

"It would clearly be ridiculous for me or anyone else to suggest that we go back to the bad old ways of poor children being stood over by teachers."

His argument went down well with the poet Adrian Mitchell, who told the programme his wife had had a teacher who had let the children chose a poem to learn and to recite to the class as a reward for doing well.

"Poetry should be part of every day life in the school," he said. "It should be an exciting thing."


Andrew Motion agreed with the suggestion that people who were forced to learn things by heart at school often valued them in later life.

"There is something absolutely primitive, emotional, visceral about poetry which children lock onto extremely quickly and naturally," he said.

"And there is a way of presenting the whole business of learning by heart to them as children which fits entirely comfortably with the range of things they want to do - which then becomes a wonderful piece of luggage."

Asked to choose the sort of things primary school children should have to learn, he suggested a mix of classical and contemporary - perhaps Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Adrian Mitchell's Fifteen Million Plastic Bags.

Adrian Mitchell suggested something by Blake - but that a better idea was to get them to write a poem for their best friend, learn it and recite it.

"Then we will really learn something about each other," he said.

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