Gari Melchers, “Woman Reading By a Window” (1895)
As a literature teacher, I have been reflecting on my neglect of memorized and recited poetry. Why own “poetical real estate” in the mind? What is the good of “mental husbandry”? With the convenience of technology, why fix any verse in “the architecture of the brain”?
Molly Worthen, a scholar of North American religious and intellectual history, wrote an article in The New York Times, “Memorize That Poem!“, that accounts for the rise and fall of this practice in homes and schools. Here are the salient excerpts:
Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline — to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.
Yet poetry memorization has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents — not to mention students — consider too boring, mindless and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?
In fact, the value of learning literature by heart — particularly poetry — has only grown. All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.
For students, who seem to have less and less patience for long reading assignments, perhaps now is the time to bring back poetry memorization. Let’s capitalize on their ear for the phony free verse of Twitter and texting and give them better words to make sense of themselves and their world.
Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.
Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”
Is it difficult to learn a poem by heart? Of course. But it is mainly a matter of diligent practice, with many pathways to success. Do you struggle with the printed page? The Poetry Foundation’s website will recite poems to you over and over again, and YouTube is packed with fearless souls declaiming to the internet. Do you dread the thought of speaking up spontaneously? You might find a memorized text empowering — as Ms. Huggins, the Poetry Out Loud winner, did. “That was a hidden part of me that I didn’t know I had,” she said.
The challenge is partly the point. When Jason Jones told students in his survey of British literature at Central Connecticut State University that they would have to memorize three poems of at least 20 lines each, he was prepared for groans and cries of outrage. “I was interested in messing around a little with the mutual nonaggression pact between teachers and students, the one that says, ‘As long as you don’t expect too much from us beyond a couple of papers, a midterm and a final, we’ll perform for you and we’ll all get through this,’ ” he told me. “I was interested in things that will bring students into closer contact with the material in the class.”
Colleagues teased Mr. Jones about “how there’d be lines outside my door of students quietly weeping or looking like they were about to vomit,” he said. “I’d stare at a copy of the poem to prompt them, or turn and look away if they wanted.” In the end, he said, “their worst fears were typically not confirmed.”
Mr. Jones didn’t try to sell his students on a profound spiritual experience or practice in public speaking. Memorizing a poem is just as valuable as an exercise in close reading, a chance to observe the exertions of our own brains. “When you memorize, you start to notice the things that you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading,” said Mr. Jones, who is now the director of educational technology at Trinity College in Hartford.
In his New Yorker article, “Why We Should Memorize Poetry,” Brad Leithauer, a poet, novelist, essayist, and teacher, posits:
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. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
Writer Jim Holt addresses the process of memorization in his New York Times article, “Got Poetry?“:
A few lucky types seem to memorize great swaths of poetry without even trying. George Orwell said that when a verse passage “has really rung the bell” — as the early T. S. Eliot invariably did for him — he could remember 20 or 30 lines after a single reading. Samuel Johnson, according to Boswell, had a similar mnemonic gift. Christopher Hitchens — who carries around in his head a small anthology of verse, all of which, as his friend Ian McEwan says, is “instantly neurologically available” — also seems to absorb poems by osmosis. (Or maybe he swots them up late at night after his dinner-party guests have all passed out.) Richard Howard once told me that he eased into the memorization habit as a child, when his parents rewarded him with a dime for each poem he learned.
For the rest of us, the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I’ve already got. At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.
The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.
Last month I came across an arresting passage on memorized poetry in He Held Radical Light, a memoir of the contemporary poet Christian Wiman:
I met Seamus Heaney in person only once, at a dinner in Chicago after a reading he did for Poetry during my last year in the magazine. A few months later he would be dead. Meeting him was a momentous event for me, though in a way it was impossible for me to meet the man, for I knew so much of his work not simply by heart, but by bone and nerve. The poems had become authorless inside me, so unmediated that I flinched whenever he got the cadence “wrong” in one of my particular favorites.
As soon as I read it, I realized that I do not know an author’s work “simply by heart,” let alone “by bone and nerve.” Accepting the challenge for poems to “become authorless inside me,” I have joined my students in memorizing the most beautiful speech that occurs in Goethe’s drama, Faust: Part 1. Already, I am discovering things that may go unnoticed if only reading the poem: the rhythms are internalized, the images are alive, and the diction is felt.
In conclusion, hanging a poem in the gallery of our mind helps us —
- to better appreciate poetry
- to cultivate a habit of loving attentiveness
- to care for words in a world marked by empty and flat discourse
- to have words at our disposal in a moment when our own words falter or fail
- to grapple with the exigencies and vicissitudes of human life
- to express ourselves more fluently
- to interpret poetry more profoundly
- to feel more deeply
- to connect with the divine
- to entertain others
- to enter imaginative spaces that expand the self
- to intuit how language works
- to boost self-confidence in public speaking
- to channel the poet
- to improve mental health, recollection, neural plasticity, and creativity