Friday, November 15, 2013

Memorizing poems

"He then said something which impressed Holt as being profound ... 'Memorize a poem and you own it for life.'"
--James A. Michener, The Drifters

There 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.

But 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?

I don't 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 mind.

*Our access to the food did not depend on our answers. My husband could not recite a poem, and he still got to eat. ;-)

**This 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!


  1. I still know all the poems in Alice in Wonderland by heart, but I'm not sure whether that's admirable or creepy.