The Poetry and Memory Project is a three-year investigation, based in the Faculty of Education, headed up by David Whitley and with me as full-time researcher. Our over-arching aim is to investigate the relationship between the memorisation and recitation of a poem and the way it’s experienced and understood. As one element of the project we’re running a nationwide Poetry and Memory Survey, which launches on 2nd October – the UK’s National Poetry Day.
There have been various poetry polls over the years, mostly aimed at finding the favourites. Our aim, however, is rather different. We want to discover what poems people know by heart – what poetry resides in our collective memory at this moment, in October 2014. To the best of our knowledge, this is first time a survey of this kind and scope has been attempted.
We’re inviting anyone who has a poem in their head to come and tell us about it. It can be any poem, and any type of poem – we just ask that it isn’t a song lyric or a nursery rhyme. As well as asking what the poem is and when you learned it, we’re also asking a couple of open-ended questions about what it means for you. The important thing here is that we’re emphatically not looking for GCSE English answers, or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’. Rather, we want to know what significance this particular poem holds for you.
We’re really looking forward to seeing the responses to the survey and sharing the results. Straight off, we expect to be able to announce what poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation. It will be interesting, too, to see how they map on to those favourites lists. But aside from producing a headline top ten, there’s a great deal more that we’ll be able to do with this data. We’ll be able to investigate, for example, the reasons why people now learn poetry, and the perceived value of doing so. We’re particularly interested in questions about the ‘use’ of learned poems – how they might act as an emotional resource, contribute to a sense of identity, assist in the development of an ear for language, engender a sense of community, play a role in memories of a personal or communal past. What does knowing a poem mean for someone, and indeed what different things does it mean for different people?
Of course, the success of this survey as a piece of research hangs on getting a good response, so this month I’ve essentially been running a huge publicity campaign to get the word out to both the general public and the media. As well as assistance from the University’s Office of External Affairs and Communication, we’ve had very welcome support from our own wonderful Faculty Library staff, especially Lauren Kendrick who – it turns out – is a great source of expertise in this area, with a seemingly endless supply of ideas.
You can get involved in the project in two ways:
TAKE PART IN THE SURVEY – if you have a poem in your head, please come and tell us about it.
SPREAD THE WORD – even if you don’t know a poem yourself, do pass the word on to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. I should also mention that it will be possible for print out a copy of the survey to give to anyone unable to access it online. They can then post it back to us using the Freepost address.
You can get spreading any way you fancy. Phone a friend.
Find us on Facebook (The Poetry and Memory Project).
Tweet on Twitter (@poetryandmemory #poetryandmemorysurvey).
Print a poster and display it on your favourite notice board. And if you have any other ideas … let’s be having them!
Whatever you can do, we’ll be enormously grateful.
For more on the project and survey: www.poetryandmemory.com