POETRY: should be conserved and promoted

I am a kind of slightly wonky poetry jukebox

As anyone who loves poetry will testify, when you learn a good poem, you make a good friend.

I propose universal saying lessons in English poetry … this should involve learning two or three poems a term, off by heart


It is sometimes said of the modern Tory party that it has become a little bit vanilla. A vital and superhuman effort has been made over the past five years to persuade the press and the public that we have changed, that we have made various accommodations with reality, that we finally get the point that Britain in 2009 is not the same as Britain in 1959.

It has been a triumphant and election-winning transformation, and is naturally resented by the diehards – some of whom may read this newspaper. They yearn for the good old days when acned Tory thrusters would mount the rostrum and call on their fellow-countrymen to “stop the wot from Bwussels!” They want to hear some of that old-time religion: cut taxes, bang em up, kick em out, crack down on single mums – and all they get is the sweet reason and common sense of the current Opposition.

So, in a shameless attempt to appeal to that constituency – the listless Tory carnivores starved of their normal diet – I want to propose a policy that is both essential and modest, and which will yet be denounced by the Left as the last word in bug-eyed, foam-flecked, capillary-popping reactionary conservatism. You want something Right-wing, my friends? You want a really hard-core Tory policy? Then you should have come with me on a trip I recently made to a school far from London, in a county I will not shame by naming.

It was a good school, a grammar school, and the kids were well-mannered, bright, self-confident. They were all bound for university, and since we were talking about poetry, I asked them casually how many poems they knew by heart. There was a silence. I looked again at the 30 sixth-formers. “What, none?” I said. I couldn’t believe it. Here was the cream of young England, exposed by their teachers to all that is best in our literature, and not so much as a sonnet had lodged in their skulls.

I am afraid I was filled with rage, despair, and a desire to do something about it. My teachers probably spent more time in Japanese POW camps than they did at teacher-training college, and yet they had one utensil of instruction for which I will always be grateful. They made us learn stuff, and spout it out, and we blushed if we got it wrong; and the result is that I am a kind of slightly wonky poetry jukebox. There must be thousands of texts in there: snatches, fragments and large numbers of whole poems. I could do you a dozen Shakespeare sonnets, the whole of Lycidas (186 lines of the thing) and the first 100 lines of the Iliad in Greek.

As anyone who loves poetry will testify, when you learn a good poem, you make a good friend. You have a voice that will pop up in your head, whenever you want it, and say something beautiful and consoling and true. A poem can keep you going when you are driving on a lonely motorway, or when you are trapped on some freezing ledge in the Alps, or when you are engaged in any kind of arduous and repetitive physical activity, and need to keep concentration. When some disaster overwhelms you, or when you are feeling unusually cheerful – or when you are experiencing any human feeling whatever – it is amazing how often some line or phrase will swim to the surface and help to articulate your emotions, to intensify them or to console.

That is why it is so sad that children are no longer learning poetry off by heart, and doubly sad because poetry is the one art form in which the English are unsurpassed. The Germans beat us at classical music. The Americans invented rock and roll. I am afraid that the Italians, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish can all boast a more illustrious roll-call of top painters, and the Russians have produced the greatest novels. But no other nation has ever produced so much high-quality poetry – mainly, I think, because of the language itself.

With half a million words (more than double either French or German), and being an extraordinary confluence of Romance and Teutonic streams, English is uniquely rich in metrical possibilities, in puns, and above all in rhyme. It is the ingenious rhyming and the scanning that makes the poetry stick in the mind, and the tragedy is that these disciplines have been dismissed, over the past few decades, as a bourgeois irrelevance. Children are no longer asked to write stuff that rhymes or scans, and even if they were they would find it tricky, since they no longer have the stock of metrical forms in their heads; and if a representative sample of intelligent 17-year-olds no longer has a single poem to recite, then the greatest talent of the British people is in danger.

So I say to my friends in the Tory high command, here is your policy. Never mind selective admission, which all parties are now too terrified to contemplate. Never mind all this smart stuff about creating “more good schools”. The way to create more good schools is to insist that the kids learn something good. I propose universal saying lessons in English poetry. I propose that this should involve learning two or three poems a term, off by heart. And if necessary let’s put the best declaimers on TV and get them judged by Simon Cowell.

Some will say it is a defect of the corpus of English poetry that much of the best stuff tends to be by dead white males. I say that I don’t give a flying fig. We are in a Kulturkampf, my friends, and the barbarians are winning. What is the point of education, what is the point of civilisation, what is the point of our benighted money-grubbing species and what is the point of Conservatism if we don’t instruct our children in the chief glories of their inheritance? “What shall we conserve?” asked Disraeli. Poetry, that’s what.

42 thoughts on “POETRY: should be conserved and promoted”

  1. I have to admit it Boris: this is a gem post and just what is needed to banish all sense of economic ills! I will dig out all my old poetry books…

    I wonder if the mayor writes lots of poetry in his spare time? We should be told

  2. Top of the class, Boris! And you have to start at Year One. At Nursery, focus on the rich panoply of nursery rhyme and song our language possesses. So, Mr Mayor what about organising “The Mayor of London’s Annual Poetry Reading Evening?” Prizes for school and reader, under 11, boys and girl categories, under 16 and Sixth Form and College, get the BBC (radio and TV) to broadcast it and Evening Standard to co-sponsor. You could have separate prizes for original poetry reading? Children could pod cast and U Tube their entries?

    There! Press Release almost written for you. I’d be happy to help set up and help organise it.

  3. YES! I did just that when I was at school – it was a state secondary school, and I’m only just nicely into my forties. How quickly it (lasting, quality education) seems to have fallen away. But then, of course, my English teacher was an absolute gem of a human being – Rod Griffin was his name.

  4. ‘What’s the matter with Mary Jane
    she’s perfectly well and isn’t in pain
    and it’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!
    What’s the matter with Mary Jane.’

    The english language, history, romance and poetry. They don’t come better than A.A. Milne.

  5. One of my favourites:

    Leisure – by W H Davies

    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 and cows:

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance:

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began?

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

  6. Oh Boris, if only all journalists and politicians thought like you! Poetry should begin from the moment each child is born. Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses is a wonderful place to begin and what child doesn’t love poems about the magical world of dreams if they’re exposed to them?

    Poems are like old friends that you keep revisiting every time you run your fingers along the bookshelf. I will never tire of Coleridge’s poems no matter how often I read them. There is beauty in poetry that can’t be found anywhere else and everyone should experience it.

    I’m in awe of anyone that can recite The Iliad in Greek. I’m afraid that when I was studying The Iliad for my Humanities class in the states that it only extended to reading the English translation. Even so, my lovely teacher, a wild-bearded man that would’ve made even Homer swell with pride, recited it in such a way that I could almost imagine how it felt to be sitting around a roaring fire in ancient times listening to it. I would love to learn to read it in its native language one fine day.

  7. What a brilliant proposal. Everyone should know the first, and possibly also the second, line of dozens of poems.
    Another subject long overdue for a revival is the singing of English folk songs – Oh Soldier, soldier won’t you marry me; Early one morning; Dashing away with the smoothing iron; The Lincolnshire Poacher; Blow the wind southerly; etc.

  8. Paul: your competition idea sounds really interesting and I sent out a ‘tweet’ earlier to that effect.

    Bella: I agree that folksongs are a vital part of ‘us’ – whoever that ‘us’ might be. Can we add part-singing? Brought up in an area of the UK where everyone was expected to be in a choir (given suitable names to disguise the dire to the brilliant) and do at least some time on a descant recorder or similar, it is really sad to see youngsters in the ‘prosperous South’ who think music is either for the rich or for the extroverts with access to power amplifiers. A good-old sing-song with harmonies ranging from the wonky to the marvellous is almost unknown to so many.

  9. Conserves for the stomach and now conserves for our souls.

    Gill I agree, brilliant idea for a competition from Paul.

  10. Epitaph on a Tyrant
    by W. H. Auden

    Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
    And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
    He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
    And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
    When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
    And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

  11. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know many poems by heart. I can only think of DAFFODILS and the above. I do know chunks of Shakespeare though.

  12. Dear Boris

    Hello, I am happy to see that you enjoy poetry. I really love to write poetry and hope that some of my writing will become song lyrics. I wish you the best and would like to share this poem I wrote with you.

    Gary E Allen
    Nanaimo BC Canada

    Why don’t we drink until we drown our sorrow?
    Raise our crystal glasses to a new tomorrow

    Cry all the tears still trapped inside
    Struggle to get our hands untied

    The scent of summer roses so bittersweet
    Remove our masks so we finally can meet

    Bolt the doors to the spirits of the night
    Dance with me in the flickering candlelight

    Feed the hunger that lives deep within
    Where my flesh ends your touch begins

    You play the music and I will keep time
    While we make love to another glass of wine

    Form our connection under the moon and stars
    Time to discover exactly who and what we are

    Seal any doubt with your fiery kiss
    A recreation on earth of heavenly bliss

    Free our hearts so they can now take flight
    Crossing all the boundaries of an endless night

    Light our torches before the impending dawn
    Awaited each other’s sensual embrace far too long

    Let the effect of the grape nectar take its toll
    Allow our united passion to consume us whole

    Gary Edward Allen 2005 ©

  13. Also, I don’t know who is saying the new modern Tory party is a little bit vanilla. It is the best it has ever been. Totally going in the right direction.

    The Tory Party HAS changed. Who are these fools talking about vanilla?

  14. Gill: thank you! Take it you’d help?

    Bella: totally agree. I came to English poetry through English folk song. That could be a separate competition in London!

  15. I was much influenced by this article but would like to know more about the technicalities of poetry. Can anyone suggest a good book which explains: scanning, metre, different types of rhyme, why a sonnet is a sonnet etc, etc.

  16. Hi Mark,

    Stephen Fry wrote a fantastically entertaining book on poetry which you would probably enjoy that explains everything you ever wanted to know about English poetry. It’s called The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within.


  17. Mark

    Here are some recommendations on poetry writing books:

    Poetry the Basics – John Wainwright: written by a literature professor who is also a published poet.
    How to study a poet – John Peck: gives a practical method of analysing and understanding poems with detailed examples.
    Teach yourself writing poetry – Matthew Sweeney: covers all types of poetry and is not at all pompous. Useful as a starting point or to improve your writing.


  18. I’ve always thought that among different literary styles, poetry seems to manifest a part of unconsious creativity, only restricted by the poet’s passion and emotions.
    The differential appears to be that poetry is interpreted not with the mind (solely), but with the whole being.
    Besides its grammatical value, it has this magical aura, where words go beyond their strict meaning, forming a deeper one, elevating the reader-reciter to a higher level, an enchanted atmosphere….

  19. Article to today’s Sun, no link.


    London Mayor Boris Johnson is the toast of French classics scholars after agreeing to record a keynote defence of Latin and Greek onto video for transmission to the crowd as a highlight of the 5th European Festival of Classics in Nanates in March 26. The French magazine Paris Match approvingly notes under the headline “Ave Boris!” that the Mayor “Has even been known to dress up in a toga from time to time!”

    Having heard the Mayor speak French (accurately but like Edward Heath), can’t wait! Or will the address be in Latin? Or Greek?

  20. When Boris first became Mayor, there was also talk of holding a poetry competition. If simon Cowell is to be the judge, I am sure he would be even more delighted and willing to take part if the competition was to compose an Ode to him!

    There would be huge comic possibilities in such a programme, because Simon would have the opportunity to display his famed wit at his own expense, while pretending he was the most wonderful, beautiful, man on earth. He doesn’t have to pretend very much though, as he would be the first to point out. GREAT T.V.

  21. “I looked again at the 30 sixth-formers. “What, none?” I said. I couldn’t believe it. Here was the cream of young England, exposed by their teachers to all that is best in our literature, and not so much as a sonnet had lodged in their skulls”. – Boris Johnson, March 2009

    Boris, well done!

    However be pleased you didn’t ask if they had read Homer or Virgil – indeed if in their maths classes any had heard or come across the name of Euclid – a man who for millennia remained the core text in all of our schools – indeed without knowledge of his work entrance to Plato’s Academy in Athens was simply forbidden. Do any of our youth know his name? or that of his work – The Elements?

    You might have collapsed to the floor had you enquired after the dialogues of Plato. Had any been presented to them in all their years at school? Could any of them have bleated one short sentence about the role of Plato and Aristotle in shaping the whole of Western Civilisation? – and/or the role Christianity played in translating their master works and preserving them?

    Another core text used in every school across Europe for 1,500 years, right up to the middle of the 17th Century was by a man called Boethius – do any of our sixth formers know what the book says or its subject matter?

    Of course they could – probably – have garbled some algebraic formulae at you – we’ve formed them for that. But could even one of them say a passing phrase about its origin and to what it relates? The origin first of the name and second of the science? How many Cartesian locus problems had they performed in class? – perhaps a few, but what was it about Descartes that changed way we study the Mathematical Sciences and why do we point at him as having alter the course of western philosophy?

    Boris, I fear our ignorance of poetry is just the very tiniest scratch of the iceberg. While Paul and the other worthy contributors to this page may wish to set up poetry competitions, perhaps I might suggest revamping the entire educational system?

    We need bring forth truly rounded human beings, aware of the context in which they stand in Western Civilsation – because it is who we are! We are NOT a medley of opinions, nor even (outside London) a medley of cultures! We are part of a western European culture grounded in the Arts and Sciences shaped over millennia – we have abandoned ourselves to the Blair-Brown era of wishy-washy-fluff. At least the many new cultures that have joined ours in recent decades are an example to us of how we must act to preserve our own.

  22. Errata:

    “in all of our schools” above refers to the schools of our Western Civilisation
    – not to the educational institutions on this island!

  23. LAMDA drama exams throughout my childhood is the reason why I, age 20, can recite the best of Shakespeare, Hopkins and Heaney.

    Fellow students are bemused, but impressed.

  24. But all the story of the night told over
    And all their minds transfigured so together
    More witnesseth than fancy’s images
    And grow to something of great constancy……

    (Romeo & Juliet 5.1.24-27)

  25. Oh blow poetry and all that, it’s all very nice, but how about Boris writing an article on something that really matters? RUGBY!!!!!

    PS. Consultant, I actually do love Shakespeare, my favourite play is CORIOLANUS.

    You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
    As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
    As the dead carcasses of unburied men
    That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
    And here remain with your uncertainty!
    Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
    Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
    Fan you into despair! Have the power still
    To banish your defenders; till at length
    Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
    Making not reservation of yourselves,
    Still your own foes, deliver you as most
    Abated captives to some nation
    That won you without blows! Despising,
    For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
    There is a world elsewhere

    This is red blooded and full of passion. Poetry is a bit for sissies.

  27. Angie, no! Boris is absolutely right and this is a fantastic article. Hopefully it will reap dividends and people will sit up and take notice. He is 100% right and I cannot stress that enough.

  28. Glorious wrong headed and wrong footed rant by Amol Rajan (oxbridge) on the Independent website about Boris’ article! To read is a joy. No irony some people.

  29. Well said, Boris. Poetry is the only art form that you can carry around in your head at no cost. As Auden remarked it cant be simplified and it can’t be stolen so no one puts a value on it. Why not try to persuade the Today programme to have a ‘Poem for the Day’ slot. It would brighten things up and remind people that the English are pre-eminent in this art.

    Robin Jenks.

  30. There once was a chap called Boris,
    who squared right up to Chuck Norris.
    Said Boris to Norris,
    “You look like a florist,
    “Now go and study your Horace!”

  31. You may not have time to read a book – or part of a book. But we all have time for a complete poem daily. Not the Iliad or The Wasteland though.

  32. Poetry is around us all the time – kids rap, sing all the lyrics to songs, know jingles, ads, rhymes, chants, etc etc
    We’re not all Brackenbury scholars Boz. Yes by all means introduce kids to poetry – at any age – from nursery to PhD – but don’t force it. There are stacks of schemes around where perfomance poets visit schools etc etc -please don’t return to the land of recitation and desperation..
    I love poetry, have an A-Z library of collections of poems and keep poetry books in every room in the house. Can’t do anything by heart tho.

  33. I couldn’t agree more! I am a head of English in a boarding school in Scotland, and having just come to the end of the StAnza POetry Festival, we are trying our best to get poetry back on the map. We’re getting there, I think, but on the other hand, I think it’s for the rest of us to let students know HOW fun and interesting poetry is, byut promoting how it plays with words.
    Incidentally, Boris, I am also a huge advocate of your other bugbear (sp?), the promotion of Classics – for which, please see our community organisation website at http://www.theatreodyssey.com. We’re trying our best there too!

    Many thanks

  34. Well, John: why not get some students to share some poetry here? The site is moderated.

    TheatreOdyssey looks fun.

  35. jd
    > loved your fabulous poem about Boris! Brill!!

    Anyone else with some limericks up their sleeves?

    There was a young man called Boris……

    (…any suggestions??)


  36. There was a girl from Spain
    Who loves sun and hates rain
    She enjoyed the sun
    But with rain she had no fun
    But she lives in England and suffers the pain

    Marinela Reka

  37. Dear Boris,
    I am the agent for Michael George Gibson,top recitor of poetry. Translator of Middle English poetry such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Orfeo. He can recite and perform all kinds of true poetry which measures, rhymes and scans.
    In your quest to educate children to enjoy ‘universal saying lessons’ he is without a doubt the man to help you.
    Please contact me to discuss the finer details and organisation of this project asap.
    Best wishes,
    Dorli Nauta, Trapeze Company, sole agent for Michael George Gibson http://www.michaelgeorgegibson.org

Comments are closed.