‘Learning poetry by heart can, literally, transform you’

On National Poetry Day, author and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth champions the benefits of learning poetry to recite aloud

Can the so-called Generation Z that is typically immersed in computer games and gadgets find a way to communicate with their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation? And can they enjoy the experience?

I believe they can – by learning poetry by heart and performing it. Really? Really. And that’s why, three years ago, I launched Poetry Together to tie in with National Poetry Day. The idea is simple, free and fun. It involves school groups – infant, primary or secondary – linking up with a local care home or older persons’ home to learn a poem and recite it together, then have tea (and cake!).

The project has the support of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, who is an advocate of learning poetry by heart (and has poems in her head to prove it) and patron of both the Royal Society of Literature and Silverline. This month she will be meeting some of the schoolchildren and older people taking part in Poetry Together this year to hear their poems in performance and join them for tea (and cake – it will be a Victoria Sponge made to Camilla’s own recipe).

The project, backed by Dukes Education, was inspired by a radio programme I made about the value of learning poetry by heart, featuring research carried out by the Memory Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. It showed how learning and speaking poetry benefits both younger and older people.

In young children, engaging with poetry can improve the speed at which they learn to speak, read and write. It can improve academic performance, concentration and even support better sleep. For adults, the evidence shows that learning poetry by heart improves the ability to communicate, improves memory, increases brain capacity and keeps dementia at bay.

To join in with Poetry Together, all schools or care homes have to do is register on the Poetry Together website. Once a school has linked up with their local care home, they can choose the poem both groups are going to learn, practise, then get together to make it happen.

National Poetry Day
Gyles Brandreth with Knightsbridge School and Marlborough Primary School pupils at a Poetry Together tea party in 2019


It doesn’t matter whether it’s Shakespeare or Simon Armitage, serious or funny, ancient or modern – but it should be a poem that young and old will enjoy. My particular favourite is The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, and some of Lear’s limericks are great fun too. There are more than 250 poems to choose from in my anthology of favourite poetry, Dancing By The Light Of The Moon, published by Penguin.

When we had a Poetry Together tea-party at the National Army Museum, several local London schools came along to recite war poems with a group of Chelsea Pensioners. It was wonderful to see the two age groups chatting together and performing their poems. This year we already have more than 260 schools and care homes taking part from across the UK and as far afield as Canada, Italy and even south-east Asia – and there is still time for more to sign up to join the fun.

There are plenty of resources on our website, including poetry ideas, so if you know a school or an older persons’ home that might find this fun, do point them in the direction of the website. It kicks off today, National Poetry Day, and runs until the end of November.

My particular favourite is The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, and some of Lear’s limericks are great fun too

Poetry can make you laugh and cry. Poetry can make you think and feel. Poetry can teach you, and sustain you, and surprise you. Learning poetry by heart can, literally, transform you.

My head is full of snatches of poetry – as is yours, I’m sure. Mine is mostly verse I learned as a child – and if you’re of a similar generation (a post-war baby-boomer) it’s likely to be similar stuff: A A Milne (‘They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace…’), Lewis Carroll (‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…’), John Masefield (‘I must go down to the seas again…’), Rupert Brooke (‘If I should die, think only this of me…’), bits and pieces I learned at home or at school, the first few lines of which have stayed with me across nearly seven decades.

This isn’t simply a personal enthusiasm – me thinking because I get a kick out of learning a poem and performing it with others it must be good for you, too. There is some solid science here – which brings me to my poetry-by-heart guru: Professor Usha Goswami, fellow of the British Academy and multi-award-winning professor of cognitive developmental neuroscience.

National Poetry Day
The project has the support of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall


In a nutshell, the research undertaken by Professor Goswami and her team at Cambridge provides measurable proof of what my gut instinct has long told me: as you start out in life, having your parents recite poetry and sing songs to you will help you with your linguistic skills; as you grow older, learning poetry will keep dementia at bay.

You will find the detail in the professor’s learned paper: A Neural Basis for Phonological Awareness? An Oscillatory Temporal Sampling Perspective, published by the Association of Psychological Science. To cut to the chase, Professor Goswami has been studying and measuring what goes on inside the brains of babies and young children – measuring the neural oscillations (the brainwaves as it were) that encode the signals through which we begin to learn and understand speech.

Essentially, what the professor’s studies of the ‘rhythmic synchronisation across modalities’ establish is that the more you recite poetry to your children – before they are born as well as when they are babies and toddlers – the better they will be able to communicate, both when it comes to spoken and, later, even when it comes to written language.

And why do we remember best the poems we learnt as children, I asked the professor? “First in, last out, is the principle of it,” she explained, trying to put it in layman’s terms for me. And why is the stuff we’ve learned later more difficult to recall? “It’s all still in there,” she said, reassuringly. “It’s just sometimes difficult to retrieve because there is so much in there.” According to Professor Goswami, “At whatever age you are, you still have the capacity to learn new things if you put your mind to it. There’s no shortage of brain cells as you grow older.”

When I was a boy, one of my heroines was the great English actress Dame Sybil Thorndike.  When I lived with my parents in London, Dame Sibyl lived near us and we used to see her sometimes waiting at the bus stop. She was a keen Christian socialist and a natural enthusiast. “Oh Lewis,” she said to her husband, Lewis Casson, when they were both in their eighties, “if only we could be the first actors to play on the moon!” She lived into her 90s and famously made herself learn a new poem every day to keep her brain active.

Learning poetry is good for you – and doable whatever your age. Performing poetry with others is fun and a wonderful way of making new friends and building communities.

The evidence is there. Learning poetry by heart will give you a happier, richer, longer mentally active life. Go for it.

Register your school for Poetry Together: www.poetrytogether.com

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