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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memory: Something to be Cherished

Do you ever get something tossing around in your head that seemingly you can’t get rid of no matter how you try?  I get that way when I listen to music, for example, the lyrics wearing down my synapses like “We had it all/ Just like Bogie and Becall/ Starring in our old late, late show/Sailing to Key Largo.”  But sometimes it’s a memory that pops up, crazy like, since there’s no triggering context, maybe reaching way back into early childhood’s opaque alleys.

Sometimes something sticks because we associate it with an event or person that brought us great happiness or, alas, considerable pain.   Maybe we never forget anything really, the mind simply archiving everything that makes us who we are. While time may soften the edges of past experience, its essence remains

Freud built his formidable psychological schema on memory, which he argued was always latent, and thus influential on what we do and say, want and fear.  His former protégée, Carl Jung, contended memory transcended time and individuals, ultimately taking on evolutionary status as archetype, or primordial pattern, shaping both our thinking and behavior.  According to Jung, the repository of memory is defined best in myth, which reenacts the human repertoire of experience.  Its roman a clef  lies in symbols compressing our individual and collective destinies.

On the literary front, some of our foremost fiction writers like Joyce, Proust and Faulkner have made a legacy of memory in works like Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, and The Sound and the Fury.  In poetry, the English poet Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” building his poetic artifice on reflecting past experiences.  Perhaps the bottom line modus operandi latent in literary creation is to keep memory, or human experience, alive.

Often memory over time embellishes or distorts as we add or subtract.  It’s a good reason to keep journals. Verbal photos I like to call them.  Poor recall is the nemesis in legal matters when witnesses can’t accurately recall what they saw or heard or when witnesses prove contradictory.

Too often we take our ability to remember for granted, when the truth is it begins to decline as we age and increasingly we can’t find those damned keys, or forget what we came to the store for, or that doctor’s appointment.  Nothing to be worried about, save when forgetfulness takes on habit such as:

1 .    We repeat the same questions.

2.    We struggle for common words.

3.    We find it difficult to follow directions

4.    We lose our way in our neighborhood.

5.    We put things in odd places.

6.    We can’t recall something recently learned.

If I lost my sight or hearing, this would be debilitating and surely grievous, yet I think not equal to the loss of recall, condemned to an eternal present and essentially returning me to an infantile state as in dementia and its acute species, Alzheimer’s, that wipes away everything defining my humanity and lending  my life significance.

I don’t know, nor do any of us, what Fate holds, but in the meantime, I choose not to take this gift of memory for granted but to cherish it by nurturing it through learning new things, exercising regularly and vigorously, and eating nutritious foods.

Doctors who specialize in aging increasingly report that dementia may not necessarily happen if we keep our brains healthy by doing the right things.  Dr.  Majid Fotuhi, Chair of the Department of Neurology at Johns Hopkins, informs us that Alzheimer’s has only a limited genetic factor.  It can be delayed and even prevented with lifestyle changes undertaken in midlife.

I choose to run with that hope,

–rj

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