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July 20, 2004

OGIC: By heart

I was excited to find this piece in City Journal extolling the educational benefits of memorizing poetry. "Empower" is a word I mostly tuned out long ago, but this use of it seems to me warranted: "Progressive educators call it 'drill and kill,' but learning poetry by heart empowers kids."

I wish I had more poetry committed to memory, and every now and then I make a plan to learn, for instance, a poem a month. Lately, alas, such enlightened self-improvement plans haven't had much chance of surviving the onrush of everyday demands. The last poem I half-learned was W. H. Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," where the biggest hurdles come early, but the last half is all downhill. I always found Auden's poem to be one that almost entreats you to learn it. Read it just once through, and chances are good you'll come away with the commanding cadence of "the day of his death was a dark cold day" echoing in your ears well into tomorrow.

Michael Knox Beran has a fuller account than I do of what is so valuable in learning poetry by heart--an expression, by the way, that he takes somewhat literally. Here he talks about what, exactly, the heart has to do with it:

Some of the ancient methods, [St. Augustine biographer Peter] Brown conceded, strike a modern mind as "servile": but the paradoxical result of this early servitude was mental liberation. Augustine, Brown wrote, came "to love what he was learning. He had developed, through this education, a phenomenal memory, a tenacious attention to detail, an art of opening the heart, that still moves us as we read his Confessions." In Virgil's epic picture of the multiple passions of human life--paternal, filial, pious, romantic, patriotic, heroic--Augustine found a key to understanding his own heart, and in the rhetorical perfection of the Aeneid's speeches he found a key with which to unlock the hearts of others.

"An art of opening the heart": this is a nice way of capturing the extra-intellectual aspects of memorizing poetry. To memorize something effectively, you have to expend some interpretive effort on it, and with this effort you wind up in something like a conversation with the text. Grasping at least the literal meaning--not necessarily as easy as you might think, I've learned in my teaching--is the most efficient way of mastering a poem, so you can't help but learn something more than just the words in the process. And the richer the text, the more there is to absorb. It's sad that such a truly mind-expanding practice has been saddled with a reputation as just the opposite.

Here's a brief history of my happy career as a memorizer of poetry. I had a teacher in elementary school who made us learn and recite poetry, as well as some famous orations, weekly: "The Walrus and the Carpenter," "Paul Revere's Ride," The Gettysburg Address, and "Casey at the Bat," to name a few. In high school we memorized speeches from Shakespeare and, most rewardingly of all, stretches of "The Canterbury Tales" in the original Middle English, with audiotapes as aids. During and after college, I memorized some Romantic and Victorian poetry in the process of writing papers (sometimes, of course, memorizing happens by accident in the course of studying something intently) and, later, just for the pleasure of it. The one poem I'm certain I'll take to my grave is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," one of the most melodious and indelible works in the language. Once you know it, its music leads you inexorably from one line to the next. If you're looking for something to start with, I highly recommend Coleridge's heady little fragment. It's got a wicked hook.

Here's some more of what Beran has to say, all of it more empirical and less impressionistic than my free-associating:

No less important, memorizing poetry turns on kids' language capability. It not only teaches them to articulate English words; it heightens their feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language--an indispensable attainment if they are to go on to speak, write, and read English with ease. Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, argues that memorization "builds into children's minds an ability to use complex English syntax." The student "who memorizes poetry will internalize" the "rhythmic, beautiful patterns" of the English language. These patterns then become "part of the student's 'language store,' those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking." Without memorization, the student's "language store," Bauer says, will be limited: memorization stocks "the language store with a whole new set of language patterns."

It also stocks those bins with a generous supply of the English language's rich accumulation of words. Research suggests that the size of a child's vocabulary plays an important part in determining the quality of his language-comprehension skills. "The greater and wider the vocabulary," says education historian Ravitch, "the greater one's comprehension of increasingly difficult material." Bauer points out that if "a student reads a word in a novel, she might or might not remember it for later use. But when she commits it to memory in proper context (as the memorization of lines of poetry requires), she is much more likely to have it at her 'mental fingertips' for use in her own speaking and writing."

Terry also reminds me that "when Nabokov taught in America, he gave his students extra credit on their final exams for disgorging accurately memorized excerpts from the works under discussion," which I'd heard but forgotten.

Posted July 20, 2004 7:33 AM

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