On Memorizing Poetry

Ancient and classical scholars and scientists had a prodigious memory for the written word. Augustine, Aquinas, Montesquieu, name anyone, you can tell that they all had a prodigious memory for literature and learning, being able to conjure up exact verses of Bible, quotes from Roman literature, and whole lines from the Illiad, often in the original Greek or Latin. The reasons were both cultural and practical — not only was familiarity with ancient learning and the tradition of knowledge a sign of competence and prestige, but books were simply scarce and unavailable to all except the most elite.

After the sociopolitical and technological changes wrought by the past several centuries, books and all types of recorded knowledge are not scarce in our society.  Libraries, bookstores, the Internet,  news media, smart wireless devices, and the education system all serve to make information more accessible. Every day, in fact, I carry a palm-sized device in my pocket which will instantaneously provide me with generally accurate answers to most any question. Why would anyone ever memorize anything when there is an “app” for every bit of information you might want at any given time?

In fact, the amount of information available to us is staggering and even overwhelming. This reality has led to a new focus in acquiring and managing information. Instead of memorizing everything, we learn how to best search for and find information. We learn what kind of hardware will best connect us to information portals, which portals are the most efficient when searching for a given piece of information, how to store that information in an organized and accessible way, etc. In theory, this makes information more democratic, so we usually consider this new reality to be a sign of progress (but that’s another can of worms).

I was not convinced. In giving up the ancient habit of memorizing our most valued knowledge, history, and stories, I felt that we were losing something valuable.

Thus, I began memorizing poetry. As one NYT essayist writes, memorizing poetry in this day and age “may seem eccentric, not to say masochistic.” Why bother spending hours memorizing lines when you can summon the poem up on your Blackberry in sixty seconds? When there is no socially appropriate occasion in modern conversation or social life to recite a poem? When it is so easy to just forget a poem after all your effort?

Here are some of the reasons (in no particular order).

1. Improve your writing. It is in the lines of poetry that the meanings of words are stretched and elaborated. Stories and meaning are presented in a concise, emotionally condensed form. Idioms, sayings, turns of phrase are formed that filter into popular writing. Reading poetry will acquaint you with these

In this regard, I received an ingenious tip from from my uncle (who will always have adventures and never grow old.) He suggested I choose verse from those works of literature that have had the most impact on making the English language into what it is today — namely, the King James Version of the Bible and William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. I earnestly agree; besides these, no other single piece of literature or playwright has shaped the English language. I trust I do not have to convince you as to the awesomeness of Shakespeare, but I feel I have to emphasize that the Psalms are some of the best, most poignant and profound verse around.

2. It’s easy as hell. You may not realize it, but you memorize poetry every day… thanks to the radio.

I am open-minded, but I have a very challenging time tolerating popular music. The fact is that music lyrics are indeed poetry – albeit substandard and trite, and often insipid and offensive poetry. Everyday we get these songs stuck in our head, effortlessly, simply by listening to them over …and over… and over again. The process of memorizing a poem is no different. As a poetryx.com article recommends, you start with a poem you like, repeatedly recite it to yourself, and you get to know the poem. You don’t need to know a thing about meter and rhyme and rhythm to commit a poem to memory. It’s that simple.

As long as we are fully capable of memorizing song lyrics, why not rebel against the music industry’s hackneyed top-40 effluvia by letting your mind instead consume words that are immortal, richly beautiful, and laden with hidden meaning?

3. Enrich your appreciation of poetry. Pretty straightforward. Learning anything by heart means you are dedicating a good deal of attention and focus to that thing, allowing you to notice ever more nuances and details.

Actors, of course, memorize their lines, and in doing so they are able to adopt and inhabit the spirit of the character they are portraying. By reciting poetry aloud rather than just reading it in your head, you can add layers of meaning that are not apparent in just ink and paper. For instance: when I recite Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” monologue, I am actively interpreting the text by adding pacing and emphasis and emotion, none of which is inherent in the text itself.

4. Helps to learn a language. The first year or two of learning a language is humiliating and frustrating.You have to leap through a seemingly endless array of grammatical hula hoops. Even when you reach the end, you may not be able to compose a simple sentence, much less a sentence that can express the complexity of your ideas. In this context, memorizing poetry in your target language can be cathartic, and reciting the poem gives you a chance to exercise unfamiliar phonemes which you might otherwise be too timid to test in sentences of your own composition. (Listening to/singing music in the target language can be effective for similar reasons, if you can find a slow-enough-paced song).

I don’t want to give you the idea that memorizing poetry improves your memory in general. There is no evidence of that. Yet it can be a cathartic way of dealing with the frustrations of learning a language.

5. Intrinsically aesthetic. There is something intrinsically aesthetic, even mystical about having committed something to memory. In the Islamic tradition, memorizing the Quran is a holy pursuit and those who achieve this lofty task gain a special spiritual status. Nomadic and unwritten cultures worldwide have and continue to pass on the history of their people orally – memorized words transmitted for generations from one mind to another by mouth. The great epics of the world — The Illiad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the King Arthur tales — were originally stories spun and respun over and over by wandering singers and bards who had learned them by heart. Medieval monks in the time of St. Anselm would progress through the Bible and other theological-philosophical works agonizingly, profoundly slowly, reading one page a day, chewing on each word and tasting its flavors.

When do we get a chance to draw on these traditions?

I doubt that I have convinced you to go out and memorize poetry. There are a lot of obstacles in the way of getting started on such a pasttime. It’s not a quick task, it’s probably not going to impress your girlfriend, and it’s not something you can list in the “skills/abilities” section of your resume.

But life is about more than your girlfriend and your resume. It is about declaiming lines to the night sky as you meander through a snow-covered street. Verses springing to mind after being called up some spectacular sight. Having a simple, pleasurable way of diverting yourself while in the midst of mindless tasks. Laying in bed, whispering verses to yourself when you can’t fall asleep.

Here are some poems to get you started. Let me know how it goes.

  • “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Bright Star”, John Keats
  • “The Windhover,” “Spring and Fall”, Girard Manley Hopkins
  • “Dover Beach” Matthew Arnold
  • “The Second Coming,” “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” W.B. Yeats
  • “Annabelle Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe
  • “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Death be Not Proud” by John Donne
  • “This Lunar Beauty,” “The Images that Hurt,” “The More Loving One” “Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love” by W.H. Auden
  • “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron
  • “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687” by John Dryden
  • Psalm 42 “Thirsting for God”
  • “The Tyger” William Blake.
  • “Sonnet 29,” “Sonnet 55” “Hamlet, Act III, Scene I (Hamlet’s speech)” “As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, 139-143″ and more sonnets, William Shakespeare
  • “Nothing is Lost” Anne Ridler
  • “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
  • “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” Edward Lear
  • “Tears, Idle Tears” Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” Robert Frost
  • “Because I could not stop for death” Emily Dickinson
  • Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” Dylan Thomas
  • Trust in the Heart (Xinxin Ming)” by Seng-Ts’an
  • This Fleeting World” Siddharta Gautama

Image source: “Mother’s Gooseberry Rinds” by Walt Kelly, via Whirled of Kelly.

The longest poem I memorized was “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” by John Dryden (the guy who invented the “no split infinitives” rule in English grammar). My two favorite poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Dover Beach” are both pretty long. Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetry, with its lilting rhythms, was the most fun to commit to memory. Yes, I once tried to memorize “Jabberwocky” when I was in an irksome and restive mood.
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