[NOTE: Here's a post I first wrote in 2005. It's a favorite of mine.]
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 doggerel, 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 Kipling 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.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…