Jeeves, poised to fetch a hangover cure for Bertie Wooster, answered his inquiry about the weather: “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in autumn - season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” If Jeeves’s familiarity with English poetry is wide, Bertie’s is not negligible. “He looked and behaved like the wreck of the Hesperus,” he remarks later in The Code of the Woosters, expecting the reader, as Wodehouse did, to get the reference to Longfellow’s poem. No doubt Bertie picked it up in his early schooldays when he also won the Scripture Knowledge prize, before he took to the Drones and late nights. And now there is to be a poetry-speaking competition, called Poetry by Heart, for people aged 14 to 18. It is the best idea since the invention of Oxford Marmalade, or possibly since the repeal of the Corn Laws. Anyway, it is a very good idea. It is to be arranged through schools and there will be a grand national final in April.
Such is our distrust, nowadays, of what politicians do, that the sponsorship of the competition by the Department for Education seems suspicious. But I think the causality runs the other way: that encouraging the competition dollops glory on Michael Gove like precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard. In other words, he should be proud. The competition follows on the success of Poetry Out Loud in Ireland, where Shauna Hession was last year’s winner with a recitation of “Donal “g” by Lady Gregory, a poem I had not read until an hour ago. It is a bit stage-Irish in nature (as if a parody by Flann O’Brien), and begins: “It is late last night the dog was speaking of you; / The snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.” Even so, it’s good stuff. Anyway, Bertie Wooster’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus” may not be the greatest poem ever written, but it is eminently recitable - not too long and marked by a strong metre. The poems that the young people are invited to learn and recite (one from before 1914, one from after) come from an anthology of 130 - online. There isn’t a tangible book, but I suppose they can print some out.
Anthologies, I have found from talking to friends, are deeply loved things, and perhaps the main means of discovering poems worth learning. The Poetry by Heart anthology is at poetrybyheart.org.uk, and it includes more poems since 1914 than before. You’d also think from the selection that the only people who write poetry now are black or Asian, as are nine out of the site’s 11 poets published since 2000. Still, the first poet after 1914 is Ezra Pound, accompanied by a photograph making him look like Bob Dylan, and since he was a fascist detained in a lunatic asylum, you can hardly condemn the Poetry by Heart people for unwavering political correctness. (It would help if their spelling was more correct. Gerard Manley Hopkins did know how to spell ecstasy. Can’t they just get someone to read through the poems?)
So what is your favourite poetry anthology? The Oxford Book of English Verse by “Q” has nearly 900 poems, stopping safely in 1900. It sold half a million. Rumpole swore by it, but its character is rather roast beef and overcooked cabbage. An anthology to which many want to convert friends is Other Men’s Flowers, 260 poems chosen by Field Marshal Lord Wavell. He had learnt them all by heart. Published in 1944, it sold 130,000 copies. War makes poetry more popular, and Sir Herbert Read, that old anarchist and lover of beauty, also attracted hundreds of thousands of readers with The Knapsack (1939), an anthology of verse (and prose) small enough to carry in a pack. He did not patronise the servicemen, and included an extract from David Jones’s difficult In Parenthesis. I was surprised and delighted to find that Jones is also in Poetry by Heart, if with a rather glum item. Newer anthologies that have their enthusiastic proselytisers are The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes; The Oxford Book of Short Poems, edited by PJ Kavanagh and James Michie; and The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse, edited by David Wright and John Heath-Stubbs.
But how do you learn poetry? It certainly helps to hear it. The Poetry Archive has historic recordings online, from Yeats to George Mackay Brown, including Belloc as an old man singing “The Winged Horse”. Try hearing it with a dry eye. “The Winged Horse” is good for singing in the dark on the way home from the pub, as is the poet’s “Ha’nacker Mill” (one of the Poetry by Heart choices, being, like most of their poems, about death and/or sex). Once upon a time, the ploughman sang behind his team and the thatcher on his roof-ridge.
If our children have no words in their heads to shout to the wind, we have treated them worse than by sending them to bed with no supper.