March 31st, 2005

In praise of memorizing poetry

I think it may be a lost pedagogical device, but when I was in grade school, we were forced by our teachers (mostly elderly women, as it happens) to memorize poetry. Lots of poetry. Most of it doggeral, but not all of it, not by any means.

There was an old-fashioned quality to their choices: patriotic and seasonal verse, concerning Presidents and holidays (“If Nancy Hanks came back as a ghost, seeking news of what she loved most”; “There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood”).

I was a good poetry memorizer. I’m not trying to brag here, since I don’t think this ability implies any particular merit on my part. But no sooner had I written the thing down, copied from the blackboard on which the teacher had slowly and laboriously written it in her beautiful handwriting, then it was firmly ensconced in my head.

And there much of it stays. To this day, actually. Fortunately, along with the Edgar Guest and the others (“It takes a heap o’ livin’, in a house t’ make it home”) we were assigned some very fine poetry, mostly in junior high. Shakespearean sonnets and Wordsworth and Milton, some Robert Frost and Shakespeare, the Gettysburg Address (not poetry, but it might as well have been).

Much of this I simply memorized by rote. I understood the basic meaning, but it had no real significance to me, no depth. I had no context for it.

But since it had been filed away, somewhere, I experienced a curious phenomenon later on. I found that in crises or emotional times, a line of poetry would suddenly come to me—a phrase I’d never paid much attention to before—and I’d have one of those “aha!” moments.

At one point I sustained a serious and chronic injury. My physical limitations were such that for long periods of time I could not work, nor even read or write in any sustained way. I took to visiting a park near where I lived and slowly walking around a track there. Nearby was a small wooded area, and it was wintertime and snow was on the ground. Looking at the trees, the following line suddenly came to my mind, unbidden, (“Whose woods these are I think I know…”) memorized so long ago, and hardly thought of since.

But the words were all there, waiting for me, and when I came to the lines, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” they hit me with the force of near-revelation. Frost seemed to be talking about wanting to give up, to surrender to something dark and restful (what? death?) in a time of great weariness such as I was experiencing. And then the next line came, too, offering hope and resolution, “But I have promises to keep…”

This sort of thing kept happening to me. Keeps happening to me, actually. In situation after situation, a line or passage of poetry will announce itself—something that I’d apparently held in my mind, in suspended animation as it were, without any true reflection or understanding—and suddenly, it would be freighted with deep and poignant meaning.

So I’m hereby declaring myself in favor of the practice of poetry memorization in schools. I know there are many many children—adults, too—who hate poetry. I don’t think that will change; I’m not imagining that poetry will gain a lot of converts from the mere act of children being required to memorize it. But for the rest, I think there’s great value to be had in carrying around a small library of poetry in one’s head, to draw upon in the hard times—or even the joyful times.

Right after 9/11, Yeats’ “The Second Coming” was the poem that kept swirling around in my brain. It doesn’t really offer any comfort; it’s a very bleak vision, after all. But for me, even the act of recalling the lines, somber and frightening as they are, had its own sort of solace, saying to me, “Others have had this fear, others have passed through terrible times of chaos,” and, paradoxically, lending words of great beauty to the description of that terrifying state:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

6 Responses to “In praise of memorizing poetry”

  1. anothermouse Says:

    how nice to muse on these matters.
    try living in the confines of a euro state such as brit.
    you may not think out loud.
    these words you use with freedom in the US would have you written off as an “islamophobe” here. especially by your friends who once walked the highway of rebel-youth by your side.
    immediate arrest if any such words were used in a public place (such as the town-hall.)
    you go to the counter when your name is called aloud, you will have a 50/50 chance of arriving at the counter-window to be confronted by a femail clad in black muslin. whose face you must guess the features of, who has been indoctrinated into the religion of hate and god-fear you all talk of.
    but this is reality. a pakistan origin second generation 18 year old, fresh from university with a degree in social science or some such PC-rich subject.
    they have your personal details on the computer, they know you are scared that if you say one word that they do not like, you are exposed to being marked as “Non-compliant” or “mentally unstable” or that greatest of all crimes “islamophobia”
    I kid you not.
    it is too late in the uk.
    all are brainwashed, all are afraid, all would rather take what they can grab from the system, to make them feel “they have a life,” can run a jap 4×4, keep their mortgage payments up.
    reality BITES!
    you can no longer chose.
    their beast is publically quiet.
    the asian drug and crime gangs operate with impunity as they have for years, the money helps fuel the indoctrination and “radicals” (surely a term invented by pc-types,) occassionaly the authorities make a high profile action usually following some murders or gang torture ….
    policing by news headlines, … god help you if you need a cop when you are walking in a lonely place at night.
    the religious rallies of our “friends” go largely unreported, it takes many years before the authorities take action against some ex-mudjahadeen type that lives on state-benefits whilst blatantly preaching there jihate jewhate jihad. (check out abu hamza)
    somewhere your list of PC mentions “green” types who think the planet would be better off depopulated.
    think on it, .. wouldn’t the world be a better place if certain believers could just “discorporate?”
    hey, but we are just sitting watching tv news, the birdflu passing through Turkey on it’s way to “western” europe.
    I think the world might de-populate very quickly and very unexpectedly with this disease , should it take an unchecked course.
    they don’t have enough tamiflu, and it may not work, unfortunately this disease does not discriminate even as much as AIDS does, .. we could be in for a bumpy ride.
    Thank your god, or plato, or whoever, that you live in the usa, and you can speak freely and move unhindered amongst your own people.
    here it’s a bit more crowded, no-one wants to be the “long blade of wheat” (the one that gets chopped first) love to you all….

  2. Paul Says:

    As a poet, I realize the power of poetry and the way in which a particular poem touches a person.This verse by Robert Herrick means a great deal to me.

    “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old time is still a -flying;
    And this same flower that smiles today,
    Tomorrow will be dying.”

  3. M.J. Says:

    “The Second Coming” kept coming back to you as well? Same with me. Not only that, but a couple of years after 9/11 I became aware in a conversation with a friend that he had been having flashbacks to the same poem too. The nightmarish images dovetail only too well with the reality of the past few years.

  4. Loyal Achates Says:

    I was always fond of Charles Bukowski:

    poetry readings have to be some of the saddest
    damned things ever,
    the gathering of the clansmen and clanladies,
    week after week, month after month, year
    after year,
    getting old together,
    reading on to tiny gatherings,
    still hoping their genius will be
    discovered,
    making tapes together, discs together,
    sweating for applause
    they read basically to and for
    each other,
    they can’t find a New York publisher
    or one
    within miles,
    but they read on and on
    in the poetry holes of America,
    never daunted,
    never considering the possibility that
    their talent might be
    thin, almost invisible,
    they read on and on
    before their mothers, their sisters, their husbands,
    their wives, their friends, the other poets
    and the handful of idiots who have wandered
    in
    from nowhere.

    I am ashamed for them,
    I am ashamed that they have to bolster each other,
    I am ashamed for their lisping egos,
    their lack of guts.

    if these are our creators,
    please, please give me something else:

    a drunken plumber at a bowling alley,
    a prelim boy in a four rounder,
    a jock guiding his horse through along the
    rail,
    a bartender on last call,
    a waitress pouring me a coffee,
    a drunk sleeping in a deserted doorway,
    a dog munching a dry bone,
    an elephant’s fart in a circus tent,
    a 6 p.m. freeway crush,
    the mailman telling a dirty joke

    anything
    anything
    but
    these

    That and ‘Jabberwocky’ are, at minimum, what children should be taught at school. One poem to remind them that poetry makes no sense, and the other to enforce that it’s worthless anyway.

  5. Robbie Says:

    This is exactly how people at my church talk about Biblical verses!

  6. Mark Haffner Says:

    Hello — I am a middle school teacher who is starting a “WMBIGFY” program in my small class of 6-8 combined. I made up tha acronym; it stands for “Weekly Memorization Because It’s Good For You.” Last week I had them memorize the Gettysburg Address for President’s Day, and it was so good for them I wanted to keep doing it. So I typed in “Good Old Fashioned Poetry Memorization” and this blog was near the top of the list. My question for you is — what five poems would be at the top of your list to memorize? If you want to put ten (or 110) in your list that would be fine . . .

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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