Sunday, September 13, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Memorize a Poem Daily

One my favorite movies of the past few years is "The History Boys," in which a much-loved, older English teacher in a lower-tier British boy's school eschews a standard curriculum in favor of instilling the pure love of English language and literature into his teen-aged charges. One of his techniques was to require the memorization of poetry, at which the boys soon excelled. To the bemusement of a new, more modern teacher, the students could cite a line or two of an appropriate poem at any time.

Memorizing poetry is now considered hopelessly old-fashioned to teachers around the world. You won't find it on the standardized tests used to measure the effectiveness of our educational establishment, so why spend time on it? To be honest, the last poem I recall memorizing was "There Once Was a Puffin" in about fourth grade. In retrospect, I would have thought Mrs. Curtis could have done a little better than that bit of doggerel, but I also recall that memorizing was easy. Would that it were still so.

So I approach the thought of memorizing a poem each day with lots of trepidation, knowing that my memorization skills are a mere shadow of what they were at age nine. My first thought was to go for something truly epic, literally. I remember learning that the Homeric sagas went unwritten for centuries, relying on storytellers to recite them aloud to rapt audiences and to pass them on to the next generation. Wouldn't it be neat to recreate their experience! That idea lasted as long as it took me to pull my dusty copy of the Odyssey off the shelf and note the almost 500 pages with about 35 lines per page. Hmmm.....17,500 lines in 90 days or about 200 lines per day....I don't think so!

Sonnets, on the other hand, at 14 lines might be doable and there are plenty of good ones to choose from -- Shakespeare alone wrote 154 of them. (And one is tempted, of course, to mention haikus, but I'll resist the urge.) But there's no need to limit oneself to a single form. Find about 90 short poems that you love, or intrigue you, or amuse you, or sound wonderful when read aloud, and start memorizing. This is a HarvilleQuarter that will cost you nothing if you find poems on the Internet or use library books and can be done sitting in your favorite chair in your own living room.

If you're unsure where to look for poems, you might try a book tailored exactly to you - Committed to Memory -- 100 Best Poems to Memorize by John Hollander. According to the Website, "this is a gathering of a hundred-and-some poems chosen specifically for
memorization, and for the particularly intense kind of silent reading for which the reader prepares ... to commit to memory short poems, or passages of longer ones, that had particularly affected (him)." They were also chosen because they sound good when recited. Having perused the Table of Contents, I will observe that most of the poems are by well-known, mostly English authors, with a few Americans tossed in, and hail from the 19th Century or earlier. It may be a good starting point, but I'm personally planning to cast a wider net.

Another resource is Garrison Keillor's Good Poems, which includes at least a couple hundred poems, mostly of a page or two. These are works he's read on his daily radio program The Writer's Almanac, when he spends a few minutes talking about a literary figure or event connected to the date and ends with the reading of a poem. So at least we know that these poems can be read aloud and presumably were selected in part because they read well. Many of the poets are unfamiliar, at least to me, and are of recent vintage when compared with those in Committed to Memory. I'll confess I'm frequently unimpressed by the poems I've heard Garrison read on the show, but perhaps the fact that I'm usually in heavy traffic on University Avenue heading for work is partly responsible for my reaction.

I like the philosophy of Bob Holman and Margery Snyder, as quoted on You memorize because a "poem you are reading makes you stop dead, you hear the voice of the poet meld with your thought-process, the poem was written especially for you... Boom! You have to make this poem your own. YOU HAVE TO MEMORIZE IT."

I just hope I can find 90 short poems with that kind of impact on me.

It also strikes me that the mere act of memorizing, even if the poem does not make me stop dead but is simply appealing, will deepen its meaning. Spending that much time with the poem, saying it out loud, looking up any unfamiliar words. trying different speech inflections and rhythms, thinking about the reason the poet chose a particular word or image, will educe insights that went unnoticed during early readings. You may then start to feel that the poem "was written especially for you." And you'll amaze your friends and family as you start to drop appropriate poetic quotations into your conversations.

The image is "24 Poets and 1 Astronaut," a 2002 linocut by Marc Snyder. In case you're wondering they are:
First row Alfred, Lord Tennyson - Robert Browning - Walt Whitman - William Butler Yeats - Gertrude Stein Second row Robert Frost - Carl Sandburg - Wallace Stevens - J.D. - T. S. Eliot Third row Edna St. Vincent Millay - Neil Armstrong - E. E. Cummings - Langston Hughes - W. H. Auden Fourth row Randall Jarrell - John Berryman - Dylan Thomas - Gwendolyn Brooks - Philip Larkin
Fifth row Gregory Corso - Allen Ginsberg - Anne Sexton - Sylvia Plath - Frank O'Hara

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