"He then said something which impressed Holt as being profound ... 'Memorize a poem and you own it for life.'"
--James A. Michener, The Drifters
was (still is, for all I know) a cafeteria in Yosemite National Park
where you paid at the entrance and then were free to eat all you wanted.
One of the cashiers would amuse himself by asking questions of the
customers on their way in. He seemed to ask a different question each
day. I don't remember what he asked now, except that one of his
questions was, "Can you recite a poem?"*
As it turned out, I
could. Thanks to William Carlos Williams and his talent for brevity, I
was able to pull an entire poem out of my memory bank, beginning with,
"so much depends ..."
I may have a couple of other poems rattling
around in there. And I can also recite the first stanza of Lewis
Carroll's "Jabberwocky," along with random stanzas from other poems by
Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, etc.
I get the
impression that memorizing poems used to be a much bigger part of
American education than it is now. I believe I was only required to
memorize one poem in school (Part 1 of "The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner." Half the class had to know Part 1, the other half had to know
Part 2**). I wouldn't be surprised if children now don't memorize any at
all. And I suppose that most people don't see the point; if you want a
poem, you can just look it up, right? Especially now when people have
access to the internet almost everywhere, even when they're on the go.
that is the very question to ponder. Is there an advantage to having a
poem inside you, living in your mind--not just on a page?
really believe in lots of forced memorization. I don't think there's
much value in just reciting words without comprehension or emotional
attachment. But there might be value in memorizing a poem you love, or
reading a favorite poem so many times that it takes up residence in your
*Our access to the food did not depend on our answers. My husband could not recite a poem, and he still got to eat. ;-)
is what I can still remember without looking it up: "It is an ancient
mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. 'By thy long gray beard and
glittering eye, now wherefore stopp'st thou me? The bridegroom's doors
are open wide, and I am next of kin. The guests are met, the feast is
set. May'st hear the merry din!'" And of course the famous lines:
"Instead of a cross, the albatross/About his neck was hung" and "Water,
water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water,
everywhere, nor any drop to drink." I'm not looking these lines up, so
they may be slightly misquoted. But hey, I learned this thing mphmf
years ago and haven't looked at it since!