In Praise of Memorizing Poetry
It’s refreshing to see someone stress the importance of memorizing poetry these days, as Brad Leithauser recently did in The New Yorker. He recounts the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who made his students memorize roughly 1,000 lines of poetry in a semester (much to their dismay). In that vein, Leithauser describes the push-back he gets from his own students when he makes them memorize a single sonnet by Shakespeare.
So why even bother memorizing poetry these days? Here’s Leithauser’s basic answer:
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 [cell phone] screen.
Leithauser’s reason is certainly good, though I prefer the simplicity of his explanation of why Brodsky required his students to memorize poems: “[Brodsky] felt he was preparing them for the future; they might need such verses later in life.” The need for verse at some point in life… I think this is far closer to the truth of the matter.
Personally, I’ve found that I experience life much more richly and deeply when I can recall lines of poetry that suit themselves well to whatever event I find myself in. Last week, for instance, one of my best friends and his wife had a child. Childless and reserved about fathering children, I found myself the next morning wishing I had the British poet Philip Larkin’s unflinching words about parenthood memorized to help better grasp my own ambivalence on the topic.
I then turned to the American poet Donald Hall’s famous poem about parenthood, “My Son, My Executioner” (which I do know by heart):
Sweet death, small son, our instrument
Your cries and hunger document
Our bodily decay.
Ach, du: where to go with all these conflicting emotions? “Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak.”
Therein lies the beauty of memorizing poetry: when you can hardly speak, the poems you know—by heart or at least in spirit—speak for you. What Larkin and Hall felt isn’t precisely the same thing I feel about parenthood, but at least knowing of the poems, if not knowing them by heart, still set me on my path toward better understanding what was going through my head that morning.
We need poetry to speak the unspeakable, and certainly to speak for us when we find our tongues dumb and demure. And poetry will speak; it speaks when nothing else can be said for the time being.
Photo by cgsheldon.
A few years ago, I attempted to memorize John 15. At the time, I had most of it locked in. I think the exact words have seeped away now, but I still feel like I *own* that chapter. I know what’s in it, so when I need a specific truth I can turn there immediately. It’s like a coming home. Looking back, I can see major changes in my thinking during that time, and I attribute it to the practice and process of memorizing. Your article inspires me to keep working on Romans 5!
“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 [cell phone] screen.”
This is why “Stop looking at me swan!” will always resonate with me. Because it’s become a part of me.
One year I taught a small group of homeschooled high school students a poetry unit for several weeks. During that time I made them memorize a poem, offering suggestions and links. They each pulled it off, some of them more enthusiastically than others.
While I was working with those high school kids, my own kids were younger, and I was working with them on memorizing some simple poems. One day my parents, aged 75 and 82 at the time, came for a visit. I had my kids recite their poems to Mom and Dad, and then Mom and Dad shared some poems they had memorized back when they were in grammar school. All these years, those poems were still inside…many poems, they could recite from beginning to end.
When I was a teenager, I read The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, to my little brother so many times that I accidentally memorized it (complete with funny voices). Now, I recite The Lorax as part of an exercise in my freshman composition courses. My wife and I work with our kids on memorizing poems as well. I’ve seen firsthand all the advantages you and the original article describe.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of poetry memorization that I’ve found as a teacher is how empowering it has been to students from ethnic minorities. Every time I have ever assigned a poetry memorization project in a class, the students who most excelled–who learned the material the best, who recited it the most expressively, who OWNED it–were students from Hispanic or African-American backgrounds. I do not entirely know why this is the case or if it is normative, but it has been just one more reason for me to value poetry memorization.
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