Memorizing Poetry Is Good for You

John Tenniel, Alice dutifully heeding an elder


Molly Worthen of the  New York Times just wrote a great article on the value of memorizing poetry. Although I don’t ask my own students to memorize poems (with the exception of the opening lines of Canterbury Tales), I agree that it is of immense value. To this day I carry around poems that I memorized as a child.

I know that schools used to do this from my interactions with residents of a retirement center where I was teaching a 19th century British poetry class. Many of the occupants could still recite poems they had learned 70 or 80 years earlier, poems by Kipling, Tennyson, Dickinson, Longfellow, and others. Their jobs, for the most part, hadn’t been poetry related, yet they still remembered their memorizing experiences with fondness.

My own intensive experience occurred in another country. I spent eighth grade in a French school in Paris and came out of it able to recite poems by Apollinaire, Verlaine, La Fontaine, and others. That’s because the final half hour of the morning session (9-12) and the final half hour of the afternoon session (2-5) was spent memorizing and reciting poetry.

I can still reel off La Fontaine’s “The Crow and the Fox,” a fairly lengthy piece. My two favorite poems, however, were Paul Verlaine’s “Song of Autumn” and Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Sprig of Heather.”

When I returned to the States, I continued to memorize poetry on my own. After college, while commuting to a newspaper job, I memorized as I drove, which was about as safe as texting while driving.

I was midway through Rime of the Ancient Mariner when I hit a dog. I looked up in time and honked, but that only served to freeze the dog. I am still haunted by that moment, as the mariner is haunted by the albatross. I stopped that practice immediately and can only recite the first half of the poem.

I have most of Alice in Wonderland memorized, which is somewhat ironic since one of the tiresome things Alice must do throughout  the book is recite poems when adults demand it. The Victorians thought that memorizing would inculcate good moral lessons in children, and Alice, good little girl that she is, dutifully recites Isaac Watts’s “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” when called upon to do so:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

If you are put off by the idea of children grappling with Satan while heaven hangs in the balance, well, so was Lewis Carroll. Alice’s revenge is to (very innocently) mangle every poem she is forced to recite:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Meanwhile, “You Are Old Father William,” one of the most hilarious poems in Alice, is a parody of a sententious Robert Southey poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.”

I don’t think Carroll was against memorizing poetry, however. Rather, he was satirizing poetry with heavy, moralistic messages that one must recite to adults to prove that one is a good Christian child. He would have been on the side of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey:

She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the “Beggar’s Petition”; and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid—by no means; she learnt the fable of “The Hare and Many Friends” as quickly as any girl in England. 

My own years of memorizing poetry are of inestimable value in my teaching. I constantly find myself needing a line from this poem or that one. Unfortunately, I don’t know as many poems as I would like, which means I am often reciting half lines before doing prose descriptions of the rest. I do not have the photographic memory of former colleague Donna Richardson, who had only to teach a poem once to have it memorized. Donna also could recite large swatches of 19th century narrative poetry like Curfew Will Not Ring Tonight and The Wreck of the Hesperus. She even memorized certain memorable prose passages.

But back to the article. Here’s a passage I particularly like:

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.

Memorize poetry and the lines you need at moments of crisis will come to you, helping to carry  you through.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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