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.) [Read more...]