October 18th, 2013

In praise of memorizing poetry

[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…

21 Responses to “In praise of memorizing poetry”

  1. Mr. Frank Says:

    It is precisely because you were forced to memorize poetry and to learn many things that you became an educated person. The idea that education should be fun and enticing is nuts. Multiplication tables are not fun. Having gone to a Catholic grade school, I’m well aware of the efficacy of the “or else” method of primary education.

    As the monsignor used to say, a pat on the back bends you over. A kick in the pants straightens you up.

  2. ricardo Says:

    Hey Neo, you forgot the eeriest part of “The Second Coming”, that is its two closing and prophetic lines:

    “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

    Like you, I often think of those opening and closing lines when dark clouds threaten.

  3. Yancey Ward Says:

    I used to have about fifty or so Emily Dickinson poems memorized, and probably ten or more Shakespeare sonnets along with several soliloquies from his plays, and probably another fifty or so poems from various poets, including The Second Coming. I used to recite them in my head while running or doing other exercise, but fell out of the habit about five or six years ago.

  4. Gringo Says:

    In my time as a substitute teacher, I once taught a class of 5th graders, classified as “problem children,” whose teacher had them memorize and recite poetry.

    The poetry memorization seemed to work in improving class behavior and achievement. One point about reciting poetry in front of the class: it gives a kid an audience, which nearly every kid craves. Acting out behavior is often prompted by wanting attention. If you get attention by another method, there is not as much need to act out. Second point : kids soon realize there is reciprocity: if you want others to be quiet and listen while you recite, you need to be quiet when others are reciting. Third point: since students are learning the same poems. hearing other students recite poems reinforces learning the poem.

    There was some poetry memorizing in my school days, but not much. For one memorized poem, we were graded on how evocative our recital was. To my chagrin, I found out my recital being the most evocative that meant that I had to recite the poem in school assembly. I considered myself a classroom ham, but didn’t think I was ready for the big time. It wasn’t that bad, though.

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    Poetry was often used by the ancients to repeat ancient duties and social rules. It taught morality by story telling, and reinforced it by having the person themselves speaking the story.

    Although in those days, it was more akin to song than the poetry of modern times.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    Ymarsakar:

    That’s what those teachers (and the school system) of my youth were doing: teaching us about our history and culture, reinforcing traits deemed admirable and desirable. At least for some of it, especially the doggerel, but also for some of the great poetry, especially the older stuff.

    It was didactic in two senses: we learned the poetry, and we learned the socially approved character traits and rules. And it was done in a way likely to be remembered better than if it were prose.

  7. Sgt. Mom Says:

    My sixth grade teacher, the Terrible and Wonderful Mr. Terranova had his classes memorize poetry, and recite in chorus every morning. He had pretty ecumenical tastes, too – The Cremation of Sam Magee, O Captain My Captain, something by Sarah Teasdale about Stars … poem after poem after poem. And the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Declaration if Independence, too. I think now it was a marvelous teaching device for kids that age, although it was quite an old-fashioned one for the late 1960s. When I think back on the curriculum that he had for is, I think that he had a lot of Montessori elements in it. We did massive art projects, we built stuff, did music – he had us listening to Bach fugues, and some of our science projects were absolutely awesome. I didn’t get microbiology again until college… just as an example.

  8. Stan Smith Says:

    The giraffe is disappearing from the world
    Without a trace.
    Who are we to say its legs are too long,
    And runs like a rocking chair in a dream?
    Think of a girl with six fingers on one hand…
    You must let that strange hand
    Touch you.

    …and…

    They f*** you up, your mum and dad,
    They don’t mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had,
    And add some extra, just for you.
    But they were f***ed up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who were half the time soppy-stern
    And half at each other’s throats.
    Man hands on misery to man—
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    Those are the two poems I have committed to memory; the first is a paraphrase, since I’ve lost the original and can’t remember the author. The second is by the former poet laureate of England, Philip Larkin, and is entitled “This Be The Verse.”

  9. neo-neocon Says:

    Stan Smith:

    On Larkin.

  10. OlderandWheezier Says:

    It’s getting so I can barely remember “There once was a man from Nantucket”….

  11. Doom Says:

    While I hated being forced to memorize, I sort of liked it to. I doubt my gen did as much of that as your generation. And the poetry we were forced to memorize, from your offerings, had deteriorated severely. Plus the particular schoolmarms I had were of particularly poor taste in poetry, not that I trust women in general to know good poetry when they see it. No offense, just a noted observation. And of course with a man’s perspective… versus how women see and what they like to see… muddying those waters greatly I presume.

    Anyway, I have been thinking about looking for poetry worthy of memorizing, just for kicks. It has been so long I am not sure I still can. Being a bit under the weather so often won’t help. I have to guess that memorizing these would be just as difficult as learning a piano piece, and would need to be practiced from time to time once it became a part of the repertoire. I have been thinking about this for a year or two, just haven’t gotten there yet. Thanks for the reminder.

    As to why? Well, why not?

  12. jon baker Says:

    Just last week I was thinking of “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”. At some point in school we had to memorize it and I remember most of it.
    The Psalms in the Bible, while they do not ryme in English, if they ever did, are good things to memorize also. About twenty years ago I memorized Pslam 1 and do not regret it.

  13. Jamie Says:

    Jean Kerr’s lovely little book Penny Candy includes a chapter in which she talks about her family’s longtime “Culture Hours”: each child would work all week (with a lot of grownup “encouragement”) to memorize a poem, which he (all but one of their kids were boys) would recite in front of the rest of the family, followed by a little listening to classical music. I always wanted to try this with my own family but can’t even seem to keep Family Game Night going, even though the kids actually ENJOY that.

    Sometimes I despair… but I also have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, so I guess I’ll just carry on as best I can.

  14. parker Says:

    The Second Coming has haunted me for more than 40 years after exposure to Yeats in high school literature class. What slouches towards Bethlehem to be born is a scary question and the slouching began in November, 2008.

  15. Michael Adams Says:

    From my grandparents’ generation to some time after mine, the secret handshake of Texans involved the first eighteen lines of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. You’d start with “Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote,”
    and the second guy would respond with “The drought of March hath perced to the rote” and then we could go on as long as we wanted. People from less civilized places just looked on in bewilderment. The number of lines we had to memorize increased each year, a thousand, in senior year, as I recall. I don’t remember so many,after half a century, but snatches come back, and memorizing good poetry helped our speech in general. The idea that memory work improved the memory was discredited by psychology, forty years back, and is now coming back into scientific vogue. It always did make sense to most of us.

  16. neo-neocon Says:

    Doom:

    Here are some suggestions of mine for poems to memorize. It’s geared to young people, but it would work for adults, too.

  17. Beverly Says:

    For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio

    Running to Paradise

    Ode: Intimations of Immortality

    – a few beloved poems. We did memorize the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in college, in Middle English.

    But my crowd’s memorization was mostly limited to (copious numbers of) song lyrics. Not in the same class, really; maybe Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or some of Joni Mitchell. A few.

  18. Gringo Says:

    One childhood source for poetry recital was the “Mr. Know It All” part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. Here are two examples.


    Bullwinkle’s Corner – The Raven

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cv1L-8f2erg Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”

  19. Ymarsakar Says:

    I think I originally wanted to memorize this poem.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tyger

    The cadence and imagery appealed to me.

  20. Richard Aubrey Says:

    We were required to memorize the Declaration and the Preamble, as I recall.
    For an experiment in high school psych, three of us memorized a poem, one of us free verse, one of us rhyming and scanning, and me Jabberwocky, to demonstrate the memory aids in traditional poetry. Turns out there’s an ability some have to a greater extent to forget the poem and simply recite the sounds. If you are on the radio in a private plane, for example, you’ll hear the tower telling the pilot to climb to x altitude on a heading of y, and switch to aglqmz frequency, and the pilot recites it back. Then he does it, but I suspect the recitation is without necessarily understanding it. Then the pilot unbundles the instructions and does as directed.
    I didn’t memorize many, or any, poems that I recall, but have reread some of them so many times that I come close.

  21. Minta Marie Morze Says:

    When I was a child and even later, I always had a poem written on a scrap of paper, safety-pinned to my clothes or the curtain above the sink while I did dishes, etc. I started with a book of the 100 “finest poems” in the English language and then went on to other anthologies.

    I also learned the Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, etc. I still learn poems, but mostly old poems, because with a very few exceptions, there are few modern poems worth reading, let alone memorizing. Modern poetry is usually filled with venom, insult, and foul language, not to mention scatology, ugly-minded and blatant sexuality, badly written thoughts, and absolutely no rhythm or musicality.

    A lot of people who don’t like poetry have never come into contact with a good poem.

    I’d like to point out that I’ve memorized a lot of Gerard VanDerLeun’s poetry, from AmericanDigest.org; it sings inside of me, even as I think of it now. It lives among other great poems, and they all are of the finest treasure—the kind that is never exhausted, that is ever-ready at hand (or tongue), and that you can keep even as you give it away to others.

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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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