Why Memorize a Poem?

memory (1)I’ve been thinking about memorizing some of my favorite poems. I remember how in the fifth grade in Philly each of us had to take a chair beside our teacher’s desk when our time came and recite a poem of at least 28-lines.

I honesty can’t recall the purpose of the exercise and don’t even remember the poem I chose. I suspect Mrs. Hazlitt was trying to instill in us a kinship with poetry, allowing us to choose freely a poem that struck our fancy and have us, through memorizing it, engage it thoroughly.

Some of the boys I hung out with made quite a feat of it, putting away more than the minimal requirement in pursuit of bragging rights.

I wonder if some teachers still encourage memorizing an occasional poem. I was in education, if you count college teaching, for forty years and can’t remember any pedagogy recommendation or state mandated requirement. Except for my fifth grade teacher, I never bumped into a memorization stipulation again.

As it stands, I’m curious if poetry is given any serious attention in today’s public schools in our information age of sophisticated technology and pervasive teaching to the test, though I suspect it might still happen in the private sector, or prep schools.

I happen to think there’s value in memorizing poetry. Let me count the ways, pilfering a famous line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “How do I Love Thee,” certainly a poem widely loved by the Victorian middle classes and probably frequently memorized by bedazzled lovers.

It exercises my brain: Now don’t laugh. I’ve gathered quite a few years along the way, and I’d like to think, that just maybe, it’s something I can do to ward off dementia or Alzheimer’s. They say doing mind-things like crossword puzzles, chess, Sudoko, or learning a new language may possibly massage our gray matter. Why not add memorization to the list and, while at it, pursue some of the mellifluously expressed truths of human experience?

It helps me navigate stress: I think it much nicer to draw on a Shakespeare passage to relieve a bout with insomnia than count sheep or numbers backward. If you’re into the Bible, young David sang psalms to the troubled King Saul to relieve his anxiety. I can almost guarantee that not a few have found Psalm 23 (the shepherd’s psalm) a good fit for tight places.

It’s an accomplishment in its own right: Hey, how many people today, even among English majors–or profs like me–can strut their stuff with Hamlet’s famed soliloquy or pull off Keats’ glorious seasonal indulgence by reciting his sensory sonnet, ” To Autumn”?

By the way, when I was learning my trade, I was lucky to come across one of the most memorable teachers I would ever encounter, Dr Maddox, up there in years, but able, effortlessly, to take a poem or prose passage in our American Literature class and embellish it with effortless recall of kindred passages across the spectrum. In doing so, he resonated the beauty at the center of literary art.

It makes a poem a part of you:   I’m assuming some of you who read my posts enjoy poetry, since I write about poetry every so often or employ it in my blog. It can be hard work, but memorizing a poem has a way of getting into the sinew of your psyche, or what we used to call, soul.

But why bother with the memory stuff when you can just whip out your smartphone and google up your favorite poem?

Besides, poetry memorization was well-suited for times of isolation; but in our electronic age, no such thing. We’re all virtually connected–wherever, whenever. Ours is a noisy, busy, meddlesome world.

In rebuttal, I like how Brad Leithauser put it in his engaging New Yorker piece, “Why We Should Memorize” (2013): “The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

I like that! We wear wedding rings, collect CD’s and DVD’s, record on our VCR’s, store our photos, etc., so they can be with us whenever we want them, and often we do, for they represent life moments when we laughed or cried or were intrigued, spellbound, elated. and, of course, loved–wives, sweethearts, children, friends, pets. As such, they comprise our “spots of beauty” in a sea of flux, bequeathing ports of safety and solace defiant of time.

But when you memorize a poem, it transcends any material repository of recall. Indeed, I think of it as something akin to the communion service, the bread and wine becoming flesh.

I’m with Keats in all this. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” How much more so, when through memory it becomes a salient part of you and me!

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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