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!










Intimations of Mortality: Keats revisited

75px-JohnKeats1819_hiresI have always been fond of the poet, John Keats.  Maybe it’s because he seems to have been down on his luck so early in life and I just happen to be drawn to underdogs.  When he was just eight, he lost his father, who died falling from a horse.  At fourteen, his mother succumbed to TB, a disease that would prey upon the family, taking his brother, Tom, at nineteen and himself at barely twenty-five.  Meanwhile, lawyers consumed the family inheritance.

Keats always had a premonition of an early death, not surprising given the family history, but he didn’t know he was already ailing with TB when he became engaged to the girl next door, the coquettish Fanny Brawne in the fall of 1818.

The following year saw Keats penning in a six week period  the masterpieces for which he is now famous, poems like “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode to Melancholy,” “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Psyche,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

On February 3, 1820, he coughed up blood in his bedroom and with his typical courage, exclaimed:  “I cannot be deceived in that color; that drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.”

He would travel to Italy in a last desperate attempt to recover his health, only to die a few weeks later, attended by a lone friend.  Today he lies in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.  Engraved on his tombstone is Keats’ chosen epitaph:  “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

I have always been attentive to Keats, visiting his last London Home, Wentworth Place,  in lovely Hampton Heath, and his last abode abroad, a small apartment in Rome adjacent to the Spanish Steps, Rome’s gathering place for throngs of young people from across the globe, presumably oblivious in the “mackerel crowded seas” (Yeats) to the drama enacted next door eclipsed by time.  I have also been to the cemetery, moved and reflecting on what might have been a different outcome with a better shuffling of the cards of fate.

He had aimed to write the best poetry of which he was capable and though dying so young, achieved a poetry the world still marvels at.   No poet, not even Shakespeare, Milton, or Wordsworth achieved such mastery at so young an age, laboring against illness, family misfortune, financial duress, rejection by the critics, and the anguish of loving a flirtatious Fanny, who often provoked his jealousy.

Of all the Romantics, he strikes me as the most poignant, ever aware of life’s brevity, or how temporality colors all, testing the significance of human assertion itself.  Paradox always characterizes his poetry and centers in the conflict of dream vs. reality.  Unlike many Romantics, Keats ultimately opts for truth in the interplay of mind and feeling.

I have been thinking a lot about him lately in conjunction with the cancer hoops I’ve had to jump through these pastt several months.  I had gone to an osteopath seeking relief for my back pain only to be told xrays showed a lump adjacent to the left clavicle, which might be cancerous.  A subsequent CT scan, though it showed no malignancy, revealed a large thyroid nodule, and I was again cautioned it might be cancer.  They found me a surgeon and in the meantime I had an ultrasound guided fine needle aspiration biopsy, which indicated another, smaller nodule on the left side of the thyroid.  The pathology report came back negative.

By then I met with my surgeon, who surprised me in light of the biopsy:  “I can’t guarantee you don’t have cancer.  FNAs have false negatives up to 20% of the time.”

While waiting for surgery five days away, I visited my dermatologist to check on a knee sore, which turned out inconsequential,  Alas, however, she found a black mole that might be melanoma, the most aggressive of cancers.  And so I had to go into surgery facing the double whammy of two cancers at separate sites, metastasis a distinct possibility.

The surgery went well.  The surgeon didn’t find cancer, so only a partial thyroidectomy was done, allowing me to perhaps avoid medication.  But I still hadn’t gotten the lab results on that black mole.  I had to actually call to get the report.  It was a precursor dysplasia nevus, which can turn into melanoma if not removed.  Even though benign, having dysplasia nevi increases your chances of getting melanoma, so it means constant vigil to catch early changes.

And so now you know why my thoughts have been so filled with Keats, though in this medically sophisticated age I’ve come upon some luck this dear poet was denied.  Living with premonition of his own demise, Keats wrote what may be my favorite poem, and I mean of any poet,

When I have fears that I may ease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

If you look at this poem carefully, you’ll find it fascinating in its astute organization; for example, the poem actually consists of one sentence, or subordinate clauses coalescing into a main clause at poem end.  In turn, this lends an accumulative buttressing of the persona’s earlier mention of his “piled up hopes.”.So many hopes, teeming high, but cut off by mortality.

The poem’s structure also features an antithesis between thinking and feeling in its three quatrains prior to the closing couplet in this Shakespearian sonnet.

Strikingly in consort with its theme, each quatrain moves us closer to the reality of death, with a progressive abstraction in the imagery with each succeeding quatrain:

Increasing abstraction:

rich garners

cloudy symbols

faery power


These quatrains also unleash inexorable transitory strictures of foreclosure, feeding into the “nothingness” of the closing couplet in which death renders all human dreams, whether of love or fame, insignificant.

Increasing transitoriness:


one night

one hour

The poem’s imagery is likewise supportive of the theme, with an imagery cluster featuring darkness, shadows and clouds,

For the poet, death represents closure on love and artistry and fame.  I remember reading one of Keats’s letters in which he called death “the great divorcer.”

The truth is that ultimately we all get our ticket punched; but for Keats, he was so young,  talented, and in love.  Sometimes life can be cruelly unfair.  Nonetheless, with the quiet courage that always characterized him, he accepted his fate.

There are lessons here for all of us: to pile up the nows, knowing the temporality that governs us all; to live quietly and simply, centered in the right values; to discern those issues that matter;  above all, to love amply those around us.


Where are the songs of Spring?


Saw a sign yesterday that read, “Spring is coming soon.”  That’s something we’re all wondering about, even in Kentucky, where we’ve been having an unusually cold March, which makes it hard to believe the Kentucky Derby is merely six weeks away.  They say it may be related to melting glaciers changing our wind patterns.

But the real sign nature is about to turn generous was yesterday’s afternoon delight in seeing my goldfinch friends, busy at their feeder, newly returned from their long and distant migration.  I remember late October when suddenly they were gone, the absence of their aerial eagerness and bright collusion of yellow and black; the silence and loneliness of it, like saying good bye to a good friend who had brought abundant joy, “A quality of loss/Affecting our discontent” (Dickinson, “A Light Exists in Spring”).

I’m not a member of the Audubon Society, but I quite understand their love for birds with their bright plumage and merry song.  I think of St. Francis of Assisi whose kindness the birds reputedly reciprocated by sitting on his shoulders.  Sometimes I think they take their own measure of me in their aerial hideaways when I replenish their several feeders in our backyard.

Birds need our help these days more than ever.  I just read the other day that an estimated 100 million birds are killed worldwide each year by outdoor cats and other scavengers.

Diminishing canopy of forest and brush, draining of wetlands, and climate change add to the toll.  Squirrels and other rodents raid their nests, devouring eggs and young hatchlings.

Migration itself can be costly, with many killed and injured, caught in storms or flying into buildings, and sometimes planes.  Many are blown off course and show up in risky environs.  I feel bad that each year several of them smash themselves into our sunroom windows and I am left with their still warm bodies.

Some of them, hawks, are wantonly shot by farmers who see them as predators.  I had an unpleasant experience in New Zealand in hearing of a crusty elderly man who had nothing better to do than shoot hawks as everyday pastime in that gorgeous Taranaki countryside of lush greenery.  In Kentucky, especially in the mountains, hawk-killing takes on a compulsion.

Down the road and around the curve, I often see a sentry red tail hawk on a high telephone wire.  I like what I see when I drive past His Majesty.

I relish reading good poetry and there are poems, great ones by Keats and Shelley, Hopkins and Dickinson, that wonderfully excel in depicting the splendor of birds like “Ode to a Nightingale, “Ode to a Skylark,” “The Windhover,” “A Bird Came Down the Walk” and, sometimes their sadness as in Angelou’s moving “I know why the Caged Bird Sings.”

But I began with the subject of Spring and so Keats’ question of “Where are the songs of spring?” (“Autumn”) comes to mind and finds its answer, for me at least, in yesterday’s return of my yellow-jacketed friends.  Let Spring’s sweet song begin!

Be well,


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