Much as I deplored his early politics, I recall being struck by the death of Senator Robert Byrd several years ago. As the obituary in the Washington Post noted, Byrd was “a lifelong autodidact and a firm believer in continuing education.” He was also a musician – an avid fiddler who even recorded an album including one of my old-time favorites, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Most of all though, I will miss Byrd as a prodigious and talented quoter of poetry.
I haven’t located a source, but I’ve heard on more than one occasion that Byrd had memorized so much poetry that he could recite non-stop on the 6-hour trip from Charleston, West Virginia to Washington, DC and back. Perhaps that story is apocryphal, but judging solely from his use of Shakespeare on the Senate floor, it is clear that he had stored away a huge amount – and he knew how to retrieve it in highly appropriate ways.
Of course, you don’t get much credit for memorizing much of anything these days. Memorization has long since fallen out of favor in education circles. At least in the rhetoric. And poetry – well, it seems no one reads poetry anymore, much less memorizes it.
That’s a true shame. As Byrd clearly understood and appreciated, rote memorization may be of little value, but memorization as a path to expand your thinking, as a way to dig more deeply into your subject is of immense value.
And poetry – well, personally I believe that to memorize and deeply know a poem is among the more sublime learning experiences there is. So, with the hope of inspiring you to take up the challenge of memorizing a poem – or renew your commitment if you are already a converted memorizer, here are seven reasons to master a bit of verse, no matter how small:
1. It Helps You Appreciate How Much Things Change
As absorbed as each of us tends to be in our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to lose perspective on exactly how much things have changed – even over the course of the past several generations. Poems from other times often bring the forces of change into stark relief.
I clearly recall the first poem I had to memorize a poem back in high school – and yes, it mostly still survives somewhere in the depths of my hippocampus. It was a chunk of the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in Middle English:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
Yes, folks. This is English. An earlier version of the same stuff you and I speak today. And it was well under a 1000 years ago that people were walking around talking in this bizarre fashion. We all thought Mrs. Dunning was a bit off her rocker for making us memorize and recite these lines, but I carry them with me to this day, and among the many other purposes they serve, they make it clear to me how malleable our language is and always has been – a point that everyone who is uptight about texting and the various abuses that plague the younger generations’ use of language might do well to keep in mind.
(See Librarius for a side-by-side Middle/Modern version)
2. It Helps You Appreciate How Much Things Stay the Same
Of course, we all know that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The next poem I memorized – this time in college – was William Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us.” I’ll just quote the first few lines of this one, but I encourage you to read the full text.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Ah, fine Romantic sentiment – but also completely applicable today and to pretty much every age of the human race. How many of us do not feel on a regular basis – if we take the time to stop and reflect – that we are too bogged down in the trivialities of day-to-day worldly existence?
I quoted this one often to my infant son when putting him to sleep at night. Its rhythms had a soothing effect, and of course, I hoped secretly that a bit of its message might sink in!
3. It Helps You Connect with Other Human Beings
This one is strongly tied to the first two points, but I think it is so important that it deserves its own bullet. There is a school of thought that says you should not confuse the “I” of a poem with the author. I understand that point of view to a certain extent, but for the most part I think it is rubbish. Regardless of whether the speaker in the poem is the same as the poet, the words of a poem always form a bridge between reader and poet. They make that “connection” that there is so much buzz about these days on the social Web, and they do it in a much more distilled and intense fashion than pretty much any other form of communication.
Yes, time for another poem. Here is all of “Spring,” a sonnet by Philip Larkin:
Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.
Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;
And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.
I suppose you could argue that T.S. Eliot summed things up much more concisely when he wrote simply “April is the cruelest month,” but I’ll take Larkin’s words any day for beautifully capturing the mixed emotions the arrival of spring often brings. What you know of Larkin from this poem, you also know of yourself.
4. It Anchors Other Memories
Wordsworth wrote “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” I’d go further and say that sentiment characterizes much of our lives. We forget vastly more than we remember as we go through life. (And, of course, we sleep away a lot of our time as well!). I’ve already mentioned that I remember memorizing the General Prologue back in high school – and I even remember my teacher, Mrs. Dunning, quite clearly. I also remember the teaching assistant at the University of Virginia who insisted that his students memorize a poem – and I recall sitting in his office tremulously speaking of “glimpses that would make me less forlorn.”
Whether clearly or vaguely I associate every poem I have memorized (and many I have since forgotten) with particular events or time periods in my life. I always recall these times better for having a poem associated with them. I also tend to recall them very fondly.
5. It’s Downright Impressive In the Right Circumstances
Admittedly, it doesn’t happen often, but my wife and I occasionally have the opportunity to recite a poem from memory at a dinner or some other such occasion. Given how unusual it is for someone to be capable of such a feat these days, there is always an amusing amount of oohing and ahhing. (And, no doubt some mumbling behind our backs about what geeks we are!)
Certainly Robert Byrd understood how powerful it could be to recite a bit of poetry in the right context – and the political arena is ripe for such contexts. I remember (of course) a while back when a friend who was running for office lost. He had to give the obligatory concession speech in front of his gathered supporters, and I offered him the following lines from Robert Frost’s “Reluctance”:
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
It fit the context well and made the impression my friend wanted to make. Having lines like these tucked away in your memory can come in handy more often than you may think.
6. It Can Be a Platform for Learning New Things
I should be crystal clear that when I talk about memorizing a poem, I am not talking about “rote” memorization. Memory should come out of really getting to know a poem; out of reading it closely and living with it over time. If you do this, you can’t help but learn in the process. At a minimum, you may pick up some new vocabulary – like “gratuitous,” or “circuitous.” Or you may find yourself diving into the world of mythology. Who was Zephirus? Who was Proteus? What does Tennyson’s Ulysses mean when he says,
we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Or stretching across time in a different way, you might try to understand what Adrienne Rich’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” could possibly have to do with the John Donne poem of the same name. The possibilities are as endless as learning itself. Dive down the rabbit hole of any given poem and you will emerge much the wiser for it.
7. Who Knows, It May Actually Inspire You To Write A Poem
I said earlier that the “General Prologue” was the first poem I ever memorized, but that is not precisely true. When I was a boy, my father would occasionally recite a small bit of doggerel that stuck in my mind:
You’re a poet
and you don’t even know it
But your feet show it
Well, I’m no Longfellow. And I am certainly not a Frost or a Larkin, but I have from time to time tried to write a poem or two. Whether or not you produce a work of genius, simply trying to capture a thought or feeling in focused, intense language is a great learning exercise. And who knows, maybe someday a high school English teacher will assign your poem to be memorized.
So, those are my reasons for memorizing poetry. I’m sure I could come up with many others, but what about you? If you are someone who memorizes, or aspires to memorize poetry, why? And what are some of your favorite poems?
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.