Tonight for homework you will memorize…

This is my last of my guest-blogging posts. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for inviting me to do this again. And thanks for all the interesting and thoughtful comments.

It would be announced with great fanfare across the land: the seventh-grade sonnet experiment. Across the country, seventh graders who participated in an intensive ten-week course on sonnets would be compared with those who did not. “Research would show” that two years later, the sonnet studiers would be better writers than the control group—that their essays, letters, and other compositions had benefited from the sonnet course.

Then the objections would come rolling in: How can you tell it was the sonnet study that brought about the improvement? Perhaps they were learning good writing over the course of the sonnet study? Perhaps their schools (which participated voluntarily) had an advantage to begin with? Who is to say that the effects would be replicated? Why do we need such a study to justify the memorization of sonnets or any other poems?

Indeed, why should we have to do double backwards somersaults to justify the idea of having students memorize a sonnet? Why isn’t poetry memorization—including sonnet memorization—part of the curriculum in every grade? Why has it become something for the privileged, or for an unusual school or class here and there?

There are plenty of good reasons to memorize poems; one does not have to scrounge for them. The most obvious reason for memorization is to have the poem with you always. It is a great thing to tilt and turn in the mind. If you have a long train commute, if you are waiting in a long line, you can recite it silently. In her 2000 introduction to The American Reader, Diane Ravitch writes, “Words that are learned ‘by heart’ become one’s personal treasure, available when needed.” Sometimes a line might come to you by surprise, or you might understand a phrase in a new way. Or it may help you in a difficult time. You can find some pleasure, as Wordsworth says, “Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”

When you memorize a sonnet in particular, you know a compact train of thought. The sonnet has room for many shapes of argument, all in the space of fourteen lines. You develop an instinct for the motion, rhythm, and balance of an argument, for the combination of logic and word play. It’s like holding a rubber band and knowing just how far it will stretch. (For more on the logic of sonnets, see Richard Wilbur’s interview in the Atlantic.)

Also, as you memorize poems of various forms, you build a repertoire. You recognize certain words and phrases. You develop a sense of how the poems relate to each other, how one sonnet comments on other sonnets, villanelles on villanelles, free verse on all sorts of forms. You know when a phrase has become hackneyed and when it hasn’t—and you see that it is still possible to write about a tree or the moon, if one does it unlazily. You start to see the meanings that words have built over time.

And then there is the practice of memorization, nothing to scoff at. This ties in with the other points. How do you memorize a poem? Much in the same way that you learn your way around a house in the dark. You start to recognize its turns. You know your way to the refrigerator, but there is more than the refrigerator. You know which window lets in the dim light from the pub across the street. At first the poem doesn’t seem to stay in the head at all. Then it starts to show knobs, steps, angles, banisters, moldings, pre-war (or, for that matter, postwar) details. And maybe there’s a chair in the hallway that shouldn’t be there. You become less tolerant of bad poetry, too.

There is the sheer accomplishment of memorizing something beautiful. When I had my eighth-grade ESL students memorize sonnets, some were so proud that they would recite them for weeks afterward. When I taught elementary school, my students performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which I shortened but did not change), and they performed with spirit, expression, and beautiful enunciation. Some contined reciting their monologues long after the production was over.

By memorizing and reciting poetry, we may also influence others. I memorized my first Shakespeare sonnet (Sonnet 146, “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth”) in eighth grade, after hearing a tenth grader recite it during an assembly. I was so taken by the poem that I had to learn it right away. Had she not learned it, had I not heard her recite it, I might not have learned it either.

What puzzles me is that we have to argue so hard today for memorizing poems. Why isn’t it part of what schools and students normally do? Perhaps it will be, over time, as schools follow other schools’ examples. A high-poverty charter school in the Boston area requires every student in tenth grade to memorize and deliver a monologue. The principal explains, “Our mission is to make what seems unreasonable and outlandish elsewhere seem like the norm here.’’ But actually this is the norm in many of the élite Boston schools. Why not everywhere?

Comments

  1. My sons and I have memorized 6 to 8 poems or other documents per acadmic year for the last 4 years. We’ve built up quite the treasure chest. None of us are natural memorizers and take quite a bit of time to get really fluent, but we do enjoy the results. When they were younger we did simple stuff…”thirty days has September, April, June and November, all the rest have thirty-one, expect for February alone…” Some of the more difficult ones were IF by Rudyard Kipling, O’Captain my Captain, and the Gettysburg Address. We’ve done bits of Shakespeare, Browning, Frost.. Good stuff.

    It actually takes very little time. We devote about 10 minutes to memorization 3 times per week. Not a lot of time investment for wonderful results. I highly recommend it.

  2. What I like most about memorizing a poem is how it makes you pay attention to each little piece.

    I had my seventh graders memorize the first stanza of “The Raven” this year. Many clearly loved it. Volunteers participated in an American Idol-style recitation contest.

  3. I am a retired teacher high on having students memorizing poetry. Our school had an annual oratorical contest and there was high excitement for these K-5 yougsters as they performed their selection in front of the entire school. There were three categories – Poems by others, original work, and fables. There were trophies, blue, red and white ribbons for the top performers. All students received a beautiful certificate of participation. Several of my students later performed in front of our local school board with standing ovations for their effort. Obviously parental involvement and pride was a joy to see. I am now writing my own education blog, and would love to have people check it out. Jan Lind-Sherman http://www.teacherslogon.blogspot.com.

  4. This year I hope to organize a sonnet society. Students will become sonnets–sort of like how people became books in Fahrenheit 451–without the burning.

    We’ve done poetry slams for years. This year we might try to do something like The Moth.

  5. I wouldn’t be surprised if those who struggle in school, who, at home do not have the encouragement or even down right discouragement to learn would complain the most about memorization of any material.
    But, those who have the education, the passion to teach and especially those who teach the teach, are the ones who degrade and denounce the art of memorization.
    Once, at a course on science teaching, I mentioned students memorizing! Oh the shame! The scandal! That is not learning! I was told. So students who memorized the equations, knew what was what could do the science in a heart beat, and those in the class that didn’t…do I need say more?
    Bob

  6. Diana Senechal says:

    I am delighted to read all these stories! Thank you!

  7. I was drinking beer and playing chess in Anna Banana’s one evening. When my opponent left the table to buy another round a woman I did not know walked over, looked down at me and said: “Recite something”.

    We live for opportunities like this! I looked her in the eyes and said…

    “Since feeling is first, who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things may never wholly kiss you.
    wholly to be a fool while spring is in the world.
    my blood approves and kisses are a better fate than wisdom, lady
    I swear by all flowers.
    Don’t cry. The best gesture of my brain
    is less than your eyelid’s flutter, which says
    ‘we are for each other’.
    Then laugh, leaning back in my arms
    for life is not a paragraph
    and death, I think, is no parenthesis.”
    e.e. cummings

  8. Memorizing verses is an integral part of our homeschool curriculum as well, but rarely do we memorize a whole psalm. I think it helps to have that “personal treasure” as you wrote. We’ve also memorized the first stanza of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

    One thing I’ve noticed is that verses or passages that take longer to memorize tend to stay with the children longer than a verse that only took a day or two to master. I don’t know if it’s the repetition involved in getting the lines down, or if it is simply the amount of time spent on the piece.

  9. Here’s two things you don’t get out of poetry just from silent reading:

    1) Some author observed that reading Swinburne’s line “the mute, clear music of her amorous mouth” aloud “moves the reader’s mouth into the position of a kiss.” It’s not just the meaning or sound of the words.

    2) Here’s a stanza from Grey’s Elegey Written in a County Churchyard:

    “No you, ye proud, impute to these the fault
    If memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise
    where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
    the pealing anthem swells the note of praise.”

    If you read this stanza once or twice, your response is likely to be: “Huh?” but it makes complete sense; “where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault the pealing anthem swells the note of praise” is an adjectival phrase which modifies the noun “tomb”. Memorize the Elegy and you get it.

  10. PoetryOutLoud.org

  11. Memorization is helpful for some very practical and basic reasons as well. It helps my 8 year old pay a lot more attention to language then he generally does so that he gets to use better grammar then he might otherwise. He also has some trouble with pronunciation that recitation helps him with.

    One last thing, every time one of my kids recites a poem from memory for someone they’re getting a bit of a taste for performing. It’s led, with my 11 year old, from reciting poems for a few family members to being very comfortable with violin recitals and church readings.

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Malcolm,

    The clauses aren’t the hard part of that stanza. The hard part of that stanza is the first line.

    I mean, it’s poetry… so you’re allowed to bend the rules. But “No you” is a very, very stylized (and, if one were to here it a particular way, barbarically ignorant) way of saying “Do not”.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    UPDATE:

    I decided after I submitted the prior comment that it was so stylized that there was a good chance it was wrong. Indeed, I found that it is. The line actualy reads “Nor you…”, which references back to “Let not Ambition…” 2 stanzas prior, so that we let not Ambition do X, nor you do Y.

    None of this, by the way, should detract from Malcom’s points, which are well-taken.

  14. Typo, sorry.

  15. Diana Senechal says:

    Memorizing poems in a foreign language helps with learning the language, even when you consider the differences between poetic and spoken language.

    You find yourself turning the words and phrases in your mind so many times that certain things click–as in Malcolm’s example, only in Lithuanian, Bengali, or what have you.

    Knowing no Bengali, I memorized a Bengali poem for my students’ enjoyment (many were from Bangladesh). I had a recording and a literal translation. The poem, “Beraler eyont kicu pongti,” by Shamsur Rahman, is about a parent with a daughter (the youngest of several) and a cat. The girl loves the cat and takes care of it. But the cat takes off one day, and the girl is so upset she doesn’t eat for two days. The parent doesn’t know how to explain why the cat left.

    My transliteration is based on the sounds–some of the word divisions may be inaccurate.

    “…Ekdin [one day], bola-kova ney [without saying a word], she beral kuthai udaoholo [this cat vanished somewhere], kicute galo na jana [not a trace of her anywhere], koja-oji holoshar [we looked everywhere], ar amar konischo konna [and my youngest daughter] bhishun kharab kore mon [was very downcast], khelo na dudin kicu [didn't eat for two days], chupchap, nilo she bichana [not saying a word, she lay on her bed]….”

    After many repetitions, you can start to figure it out–”din” is “day,” “ekdin” is “one day,” “bola” has to do with speaking, “kojakoji” seems to mean “everywhere,” “khelo na” means “she ate not,” “dudin” means “two days,” “chupchap” seems to mean “lips sealed,” etc.

    My students had wildly different reactions when I recited it. Some were thrilled and amazed. Others burst out laughing and asked me to recite it again so they could giggle some more. I don’t think they hear Americans reciting Bengali poems very often.

    I still don’t know Bengali, but some words and sounds are now familiar. When I recite the poem, I know where I am in it and what it is saying.

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