A Case For Memorizing Poetry
Posted 04/29/2015 04:00PM

By Andra Yount, TASIS Faculty
Andra teaches EAL5 and IB English B1 at TASIS and is completing her doctorate in Humanities with an emphasis in aesthetic studies. 

I started memorizing poetry before I knew what I was doing. I think it started when my grandma and mom would sing to me. Every morning I’d wake to the sound of “London Bridge” or one of Shel Silverstein’s ditties. Nursery rhymes. Gospel hymns. Old Civil War songs. Cowboy poems, too. I liked anything that sounded musical. Alliterative, bouncy sound bites clung to my memory like alphabetic Saran wrap. Perhaps it is no accident that I grew up to become an English teacher. I mean, my love affair with words began about as soon as I could utter them. Then again, maybe my love of poetry has nothing to do with my profession. I’m a big believer in the somewhat unpopular idea that poetry is for everyone. Poetry can be found in a rap artist’s lyrics or in a dancer’s somatic aria. What I like most about poetry, though, in all its forms, is its rhythm.

Poem in your pocket day

Third grade student give poems to high school students to celebrate Poem in your Pocket day.

I couldn’t have known it when I was a kid, but later at university I heard a theory from a beloved professor regarding why I loved the songs and poems that I loved. It turns out that my favorite poems and songs follow a “rhythm of three,” or an anapestic meter. (An anapest is a three-syllable poetic foot with two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable, like “T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house…”)

Like most of the songs my family sang in the car on cross-country road trips, Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” had a rhythm that I could move to, which meant that I could remember it without having to think too hard. It was one of my favorite poems as a kid. A British professor once told me that I probably liked the “rhythm of three” poems because I was American—and what’s more, I was Texan. What does geography have to do with my poetry preferences? I thought. The gallop of the horse has influenced and shaped the American imagination for hundreds of years, he claimed, and that's why American poets—like Edgar Allan Poe and T.S. Eliot, for examples—sometimes use rhythms of three rather than the more-British rhythms of two (such as iambic pentameter, which we associate so closely with Shakespeare). Whether or not the galloping horse has had any influence on my poetic preferences, I may never know. But I like the idea, being fond of horses and all.

If you think about your favorite musical artists, your favorite songs on the radio, or your favorite sport, they probably all follow a rhythm that is pleasing to you. That’s why I know that poetry is still relevant to our lives today, though the rhythms have taken on other forms that move us beyond the written word.  Today, pop music has so thoroughly replaced poetry in our lives that we often forget its origin, which was in the song. Poetry was an oral tradition that gradually became lost as it was written down, its rhythms two-dimensionalized and flattened into a board—I mean bored format.

Now, I face the dilemma of making Shakespeare relevant to students who know the stories well but who maybe never saw a live performance or heard the lines spoken out loud. That’s why I ask students to memorize a sonnet’s worth (14 lines) of poetry as part of their test on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. At first, it feels like a pointless exercise in retro-rote education, but I know from experience that in this age of external hard drives and Google-search impulses, it is nice to have something in your brain that can be recalled at any time. We do it for math: we learn our multiplication tables. Poetry is the easiest and most pleasant bit of information to keep in mind, and once memorized, a poem is like a family heirloom that cannot be taken away from you. It can seldom be lost, even to Alzheimer’s. These days, we spend too much time and energy consuming and not enough producing. Where is the satisfaction in gobbling up pop songs and movies and not contributing anything in return? Memorizing poetry is building a foundation for future creative output.  

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

-Henry David Thoreau

I joke with my students that they should memorize a poem just so they have something to think about in an extremely unfortunate situation. What if you end up in jail for hours, days, weeks? What will you do to fill your time? What if you find yourself stuck in an elevator and start to go insane under the pressure? Or strapped in an MRI machine for forty-five minutes? How will you cope? Poetry gives us focus—a sense of individuality and community. It is both personal and shared. For these reasons, memorizing poetry is useful to everyone, even today. Start with a couplet (2 end-rhymed lines). Memorize two lines each day. Slow and easy does it. (and the rhyme helps with memorization) Professional athletes know that there is such a thing as muscle memory—a deeper kind of knowing that happens when our bodies think for us. When a poem is repeated to the point of memorization, it becomes second nature to say it aloud. Then, when a poem is yours, no one can take it away from you. Not confined spaces, not an estranged friend, not war, not old age. It is yours always.


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