Lifesaving Poems: Kate Bingham’s ‘Things I Learned at University’


Things I Learned at University

How to bike on cobblestones and where to signal right.
How to walk through doors held by Old Etonians
and not scowl. How to make myself invisible in seminars
by staring at the table. How to tell Victorian Gothic from Medieval.
How to eat a Mars bar in the Bodleian. When to agree
with everything in theory. How to cultivate a taste for sherry.

Where to bike on the pavement after dark. How to sabotage a hunt.
When to sunbathe topless in the Deer Park. When to punt.
How to hitch a lift and when to walk and where to run.
When not to address my tutors formally. How to laugh at Latin puns
and when to keep quiet and preserve my integrity.
How to celebrate an essay crisis. When to sleep through fire alarms.

How to bike no-handed, how to slip a condom on with one.
When to smoke a joint and when to swig champagne.
When to pool a tip and how to pull a pint. A bit of history.
When to listen to friends and whether to take them seriously.
At the same time how to scorn tradition and enjoy it.
How to live like a king, quite happily, in debt.

Kate Bingham, from Cohabitation (Seren, 1998)

I found ‘Things I Learned at University’ in a pile of books on a table at the Arvon Foundation. Browsing without a great deal of expectation, it was doubly welcome to come across work so alive and witty. Furthermore, I had the strong sensation that it was a good deal more serious than it pretended to be. I read it cover to cover in one go.

The wit of ‘Things I Learned at University’ is twofold. From the use of the past tense in the title we learn that the person writing the poem is not the person doing the learning, but a person writing about another person. The magic shift in perspective created by hindsight allows experience to be presented, without commentary, with wry and affectionate summary.

Secondly, the poem is playful with the notion of what constitutes ‘learning’. The only formal education mentioned in the poem is ‘a bit of history’. All other knowledge is to be gleaned from a gentle subversion of that old cliché the university of life: pulling pints, cycling on pavements, living in debt etc. In the poem’s own terms, it neatly scorns tradition while enjoying it. Think how different the poem’s tone would be (and the reader’s response to it) had it been called ‘Things I Learned at Oxford’.

Formally the poem appears to grow more conscious of itself the longer it goes on. I relished the buried half-rhymes of ‘Etonian’, ‘Victorian’ and ‘Bodleian’; of ‘theory’, ‘sherry’, and ‘agree’. Linking these words in sound is only half the fun: repeated in list form they start to create dynamic whorls of nonsensical association, beloved by the surrealists and student drinking-games. Which is perhaps the point.

I savour, too, the looping rhymes in the second and third stanza: ‘run’ and ‘puns’ with ‘one’; ‘integrity’ with ‘history’ and ‘seriously’. The seriousness of the poem can be found in these formal pleasures, but it is there, too, in knowing ‘when to keep quiet’, becoming ‘invisible’ in seminars, and ‘when not to address my tutors formally’. These moments are about confidence, identity and language, of learning to use them in order to fit in, the growing awareness of the catastrophe of using them with the wrong people, or at the wrong time.

Like all great poems, all of this learning is worn lightly. It comes to us in the form of a list. It might have been dashed off during an ‘essay crisis’ or while rolling a joint. It gives the impression of not being the real thing at all. Deep down it knows that it is.


  1. Kate Bingham was a visiting reader at an Arvon course I did. I loved her style and her poetry, but the privileged setting of Oxford made the chip on my shoulder jiggle a little and I wrote this in reply. Not my finest work but thought you might like to see it!

    Things I learned at Eckington School

    That Mark Davidson could undo a bra strap with one hand
    if you stood still long enough;
    what halitosis is (from Mr Mountford);
    what fear is (from Mr Mountford)
    what strength I have (from moving to Mrs Silson’s class).

    To disguise my accent but
    to celebrate those differences
    which might otherwise result
    in getting the shit kicked out of you;
    to swear;
    to kiss like eels fighting;
    to talk like a miner’s wife;
    that scabs are punished with a brick;
    that teachers are often surprisingly thick;
    that Mrs Andrews, for instance, did not know what ‘furtive’ meant;
    that life ends if you haven’t done your UCAS form;
    that life without coal was unimaginable then;
    that I was on my own.


    1. Hi Jo

      Great to hear from you and thanks so much for sharing your irreverent fun with the original.
      I understand where you are coming from on the chippyness front. I think the poem outstrips those precise complaints through its great charm and handling of tone. We’re never allowed to forget the speaker is on the assumed side of the reader and not on those who are old Etonians or who hunt etc.
      As ever with best wishes and thanks



  2. I wrote the following at a Jo Bell workshop, inspired by Kate Bingham’s poem… Unlike Jo I think I was at the same educational institution as Kate Bingham and the wonderfully light touch of her poem was a great way into thinking about my experience of that place… 🙂

    What I learnt at University

    that a city can be so beautiful
it hurts

    that most students survive in one piece
though a few each year get broken

    to read and read and read
in huge oak chairs,

    while outside the window the tramps

    swig QC sherry and swear,
and sing

    to bullshit so convincingly
you believe yourself

    to have learnt something

    to have breakfast with your lover

    at Brown’s in the Covered Market;
to drink tea in the afternoon;
to start work when the bar closes

    that night
is the best time to write
when rushing life holds its breath

    that there are always sad lawyers
in the library

    you can get a fag from at 3 am

    that literature is an inky ocean
that history is fire

    that those great leather books
and carved stone heads

    weren’t going to give up their wisdom to me

    that love
    can be daffodils
in a milk bottle


    1. Dear Ailsa
      This is so lovely. Thank you for sharing it here with us all.
      I feel I have inadvertently started an open writing workshop, using Kate’s wonderful poem as a default model…
      maybe that is not such a bad idea, for future blog posts, I mean…
      something to think about.

      As ever with deep thanks for your engagement


  3. I just found your blog and love it! The poem ‘Things I Learned at University’ is right up my street… I found you because I am looking for poems about cancer, because I am writing them,

    What if it comes back? I asked,
    The doctors eyes fell low,
    Best not to think about the past,
    The future’s where to go…

    But what if this lump’s it again,
    How do I know we caught it?
    He said, best course is to refrain
    From thinking more cells bought it.

    I need to feel I’ll cope next time,
    That I’ll spot that its there…
    That you won’t inject orange slime
    And shave off all my hair!

    The simple questions annoy you,
    And yet there’s no solution,
    I did the things you said to do,
    And then I cut out dairy too,
    And prayed for evolution…

    I know it isn’t done to lie,
    You have your reputation,
    The treatment phase has now gone bye,
    I need to settle down and try,
    Long life repatriation…

    Yet, what if it comes back now?
    I’m sorry to demand,
    I’ve earned a right to why, and how,
    This time, I’m in command….

    You can find my work on, or on Facebook,

    I would appreciate any comments -thank you!!


    1. Thank you for your kind comment and poem.
      When I was recovering from my own illness I found the poems of Julia Darling, in her books Sudden Collapses in Public Places and Apology for Absence (Arc), very helpful in that they showed me a way to begin discussing what I had been through, whilst presenting a range of metaphors and perspectives of and about cancer which I had not previously thought of. I cannot recommend them highly enough. You might also want to look at Jo Shapcott’s amazing Of Mutability (Faber).
      With best wishes and thanks


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