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?