on Saturday, Molly Worthen published an op-ed in the New York Times on the value of memorizing poetry. It’s hyperlinked in the previous sentence, and printed in its entirety below. There are already 461 comments online, not including my dad’s "Did you read this?" as the personal message to his daily NYTimes forward to me. Anyone in this forum who accompanied my family to Ireland in June knows the value of this skill: sometimes you have a bus full of agitated, eager passengers, and you just don’t have a wireless connection (but you do have a mic you can commandeer)! And anyone in this forum who went through high school with me knows the aesthetic, emotional rewards of the practice. I am not including Patrick Beidelman, who took a "gentleman’s D" on such exercises…
In any case, I’m an advocate of the practice mostly for the same reasons Ms. Worthen is. Also because some of these poems can become part of one’s internal storehouse, a reserve to help us navigate the world, much like a favorite song, or album, or favorite piece of wisdom from a loved mentor. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," which we read together a couple weeks back, is a sanity flotation device that I keep in my back pocket for fun, but also for much-needed occasions. I simply cannot recite it without also lowering my heart rate, relaxing my upper back, and snapping where I am and what I’m doing into a little clearer focus. My goal for the rest of this year is to memorize Stevens’ "The Snow Man." Perhaps I’ll get it done in time to bore my family at Christmas time.
But the poem is not your feelings, and maybe the factual correlative of the poem is entirely separated from your own circumstances… can the act of recitation be meaningful? My favorite line of the essay is the response of an 18-year-old oratory winner from Atlanta, who said, "That was a hidden part of me that I didn’t know I had." But she’s got it now, and she’s got it forever, cuz it’s stuck inside her. Do you buy this? What is your poetry-memorization goal for the year? -ed.
MEMORIZE THAT POEM!
LATE one night this spring, Justin Snider, an assistant dean at Columbia University, was riding the uptown No. 2 in Manhattan when the train ground to a halt. After about 15 minutes — with little information about the delay and no cell service — everyone in the car was getting restless. Suddenly, inspiration struck. “I asked neighboring passengers if they wanted to hear some Shakespeare, and no one objected,” Mr. Snider told me.
He had memorized Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech more than 15 years earlier, to pass the time on a cross-country bike trip. “I was definitely nervous because I’d never performed publicly before,” he said. Although his jaded audience neglected to clap when he finished — they did applaud when the train started to move again — Mr. Snider was pleased that he didn’t forget a line.
The soliloquy was fixed in the architecture of his brain, ready to serve in a moment of boredom or underground anxiety. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Snider has asked students to memorize poetry many times in his career in education.
Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline — to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.
Yet poetry memorization has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents — not to mention students — consider too boring, mindless and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?
In fact, the value of learning literature by heart — particularly poetry — has only grown. All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.
For students, who seem to have less and less patience for long reading assignments, perhaps now is the time to bring back poetry memorization. Let’s capitalize on their ear for the phony free verse of Twitter and texting and give them better words to make sense of themselves and their world.
Parents have encouraged children to memorize cherished texts — Scripture, nursery rhymes, classical verse — for centuries. After the Civil War, the growth of public schools and the proliferation of textbooks with verse anthologies made poetry memorization a fixture of American elementary and high school education.
In her book “Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem,” Catherine Robson, a professor of English at New York University, explains that poetry recitation was an inexpensive exercise that helped even inexperienced teachers at underfunded schools impart rhetorical skills and nurture moral character. A 1902 handbook called “The Teaching of English” noted that reciting poetry stocked “the mind with the priceless treasure of the noblest thoughts and feelings that have been uttered by the race.”
Educators and textbook publishers selected somber poems that modeled Victorian virtues: piety, noble sacrifice and valiant acceptance of mortality. One of the most widely memorized poems in 19th-century classrooms was Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a lengthy meditation on death: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,/And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,/Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour./The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
By the 1920s, educators increasingly questioned such poetry’s “relevance” to students’ lives. They began to abandon memorization in favor of teaching methods that emphasized self-expression, although the practice remained popular until about 1960 — and still endures in some foreign language classes (to pass a college Russian course, I had to memorize some Pushkin).
The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four).
How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samara Huggins, 18, the winner of the 2017 national Poetry Out Loud contest, in which high school students recite poems before a panel of judges. She performed “Novel,” by the avant-garde 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud — not an author who, at first glance, has much in common with Ms. Huggins, a teenager from the Atlanta area.
Yet every good poem grapples with some essential piece of human experience. “Rimbaud wrote that poem when he was young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)
“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.
Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculumsare based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.
Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”
Is it difficult to learn a poem by heart? Of course. But it is mainly a matter of diligent practice, with
declaiming to the internet. Do you dread the thought of speaking up spontaneously? You might find a memorized text empowering — as Ms. Huggins, the Poetry Out Loud winner, did. “That was a hidden part of me that I didn’t know I had,” she said.
The challenge is partly the point. When Jason Jones told students in his survey of British literature at Central Connecticut State University that they would have to memorize three poems of at least 20 lines each, he was prepared for groans and cries of outrage. “I was interested in messing around a little with the mutual nonaggression pact between teachers and students, the one that says, ‘As long as you don’t expect too much from us beyond a couple of papers, a midterm and a final, we’ll perform for you and we’ll all get through this,’ ” he told me. “I was interested in things that will bring students into closer contact with the material in the class.”
Colleagues teased Mr. Jones about “how there’d be lines outside my door of students quietly weeping or looking like they were about to vomit,” he said. “I’d stare at a copy of the poem to prompt them, or turn and look away if they wanted.” In the end, he said, “their worst fears were typically not confirmed.”
Mr. Jones didn’t try to sell his students on a profound spiritual experience or practice in public speaking. Memorizing a poem is just as valuable as an exercise in close reading, a chance to observe the exertions of our own brains. “When you memorize, you start to notice the things that you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading,” said Mr. Jones, who is now the director of educational technology at Trinity College in Hartford.
THAT has been my experience. Ordinarily, I am a terrible reader of poetry. I am impatient; I prefer straightforward prose that tells me what it means. But this summer, I started devoting about 10 minutes a day to memorizing a few poems — one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, some Gerard Manley Hopkins, some Longfellow.
Every time I bumbled through a stanza, I ruminated on each word a little more. I played with tone and emphasis. “Poetry needs to be chewed over multiple times before you can begin to get what it is,” Justin Snider, the subway Shakespearean, told me.
I occasionally had a glimmer of consolation, too. After a day when my latest writing project felt pointless, I was running a fever and found myself kneeling on the kitchen floor at 9 p.m., scraping at ossified bits of my toddler’s morning oatmeal with the edge of a spoon. I was ready to “trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.” Shakespeare just gets me.
It’s time for us to show we care about words again, to rebuild our connection to a human civilization so much broader than our Twitter feeds. Start a poetry club with friends and find a few pearls in John Hollander’s “Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize.” Read Caroline Kennedy’s “Poems to Learn by Heart” with your kids.
Memorize a poem. Find your kindred spirits across the centuries so that — as W. H. Auden counseled — you might, “composed like them/Of Eros and of dust,/Beleaguered by the same/Negation and despair,/Show an affirming flame.”
Aug. 26, 2017