A recent commenter, a teacher, asked for my recommendations for poems for 6th-8th graders to memorize.
The thought appealed to me. But when I tried to tackle it, I realized it’s harder than it sounds.
Poems with cadence and rhyme are easiest for the brain to retain; they’re the ones most likely to become earworms. But in this age group, you don’t want anything too relentlessly depressing. And the opposite would be even worse—too trite and transparently “inspirational.”
The latter was a great pitfall of the poems we were required to memorize in my childhood, especially the patriotic ones (on page 19-20 here is a poem of this type that I still remember from fifth grade). And then there are the overly treacle-y and sentimental ones such as Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” (ditto).
You don’t want the poems to be doggerel. But they can’t be so difficult in syntax or meaning as to be unintelligible. It’s okay, though, to choose poems that are a mental stretch—as I wrote in my post on the subject, it’s possible to retain a poem in the memory even though you don’t really understand it at the time, and yet conjure its lines up later in life in a meaningful “aha!” moment. And it’s okay—and perhaps even desirable—to choose a few poems that are a stretch as far as language and/or form.
The following are my highly idiosyncratic choices; as I was compiling this I was struck by how many of them contain famous lines:
(1) Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” Is this too depressing? I don’t think so. These kids know about death already. Dickinson is a deceptively simple but extraordinarily complex poet. The example of her work usually chosen to introduce her to young people is the very atypical and accessible “I’m nobody” (“I’m nobody! Who are you?/Are you nobody, too?”). But if the students are to understand what Dickinson is about at all, something that’s more of a challenge is needed.
(2) Then of course there’s Frost. “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” and/or “The Road Not Taken” are almost no-brainers—in terms of the choice, I mean, not the poems. They must be discussed, however, in order to be understood on anything other than the most obvious level. And, as I’ve written before, there are many other levels. “Fire and Ice” is also an easy one to memorize, so short and rhythmic that it causes a remarkably tenacious earworm. It’s another of Frost’s “simple” poems that becomes more complex the more you reflect on it.
(3) Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” is exceptionally hypnotic. It’s also an excellent example of an odd poetic form, the villanelle. Have them memorize it for the sound and for the mystery; maybe they’ll come back and get more of the meaning later.
(4) Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Tears Idle Tears.” A real tearjerker. Accessible with just a bit of tweaking.
(5) Almost any sonnet of Shakespeare’s—maybe “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” This was the one I had to memorize in junior high, and it was a keeper. Watch out for the word “haply” in line 10; it doesn’t mean what they will think it does.
(6) John Donne’s “Song.” The language is archaic, which makes it hard but not too hard. And it’s catchy (pun intended). I memorized it when young, so I can attest to its appeal, including the cynicism it expresses.
(7) Rudyard Kipling, speaking of earworms. “If” is the one usually chosen (and the one I had to memorize in junior high) but I think it’s too close to being doggerel. To be really subversive, I’d prefer something from “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” especially those last two stanzas. Food for thought, indeed!
(8) Gerard Manley Hopkins, another of my favorite poets. A must is his “Spring and Fall.” It’s difficult. But the subtitle, after all, is “to a young child” (of course, young children were probably more erudite back then). The sentiment, however, endures, and is still perfectly understandable to children if explained correctly. “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for” (that was done from memory; I adored this poem when I was about twelve years old).
(9) Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology collection has many possibilities, easy to understand but still good poetry. I’m exceedingly partial to his “Fiddler Jones.” It has the added advantage of not rhyming, thus offering some variety. And yet it has enough rhythm to remain relatively easy to memorize.
(10) Then there’s the utterly unique e.e. cummings’s utterly unique “my father moved through dooms of love.” Okay, so it’s not exactly a linear poem. In fact, it may sound like gibberish. But let the language wash over you and I think you’ll agree it’s very lovely.
(11) I thought I’d stop at ten. But I simply must include one more, another favorite of mine: Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With the Plough.” The dialect is almost impossible, I know. But with an explanation of the meaning of the obscure, archaic words, I think it’s a poem that will appeal to kids of that age. At any rate, it’s a masterpiece, going from the cute and cuddly (Burns almost overdoes it but stops right at the brink) to the profound.
(12) Oh, and while I’m at it, I’ll include one guaranteed to make any teacher a really really big hit with the junior high crowd—although it probably would get him/her fired, even in our relatively permissive times. I refer of course to Philip Larkin’s dark and gimmicky “This Be the Verse,” the first line of which is “They f____ you up, your mum and dad…” Ah, poetry!
[NOTE: Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.]