Memorizing Poems

I don’t remember memorizing more than two lines of a poem. And I did it poorly.

I’m never sure if it’s “Two paths diverge in a wood” or “Two roads….” Of course, both are kind of wrong, one more than an other: It’s “Two roads diverged in a yellow woods.”

For my graduate class on John Milton the professor expected us to memorize passages for the midterm. No texts. On the one hand this seems insane–why do we have books if not to use them? Even in that time before computers were a portable portal to the world’s knowledge it seemed like an unreasonable expectation. With calculators and the internet, memorizing times tables and arcane historical names and dates seems like a pointless exercise in time mismanagement. “Look it up!” is this generation’s battle cry.

But, sadly, they don’t look it up. They (I sadly refer to my students and their generation as “they”, which only betrays my own insecurities) wallow in cultural ignorance and don’t know it. Our culture is so fractured that there is no common cultural currency anymore. So bad is it that I sound like an idiot wring this.

Instead of letting me make the case, poorly, read this: A Memorized Poem ‘Lives With You Forever,’ So Choose Carefully by Camila Domonoske. Let me here make a plug for the “Monkey See” NPR culture blog and its excellent, albeit at times a tad self-consciously twee podcast, “Pop Culture Happy Hour.”

Forever I had wanted to be one of the people who could quote literature. My graduate school friend Joe could–just a smattering, a few lines, that made him smart at parties. I could paraphrase. Syndicated television was more my specialty.

My wife–the high school English teacher, poet, and poetry reader–is also her school’s coach for the annual Poetry Out Loud competition. Most years, she has three kids try out for the honor of representing the school. That one goes to our state capital to read. In her second year of this, her kid won. I’m not sure how much to chalk it up to talent, Vermont being a small state, or poetry being a small pond in a small state, but he won and went to the nationals in Washington, D.C. For her troubles, my wife got a t-shirt and a refrigerator magnet.

She believes in the power of memory. Because I can’t do it, I’m less convinced.

But I do agree with Ms. Domonoske’s central argument that a poem memorized is with you forever. I have found that my favorite poems are ones I’ve read out loud to my students. Many are in this blog. They include “Casey at the Bat” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Perhaps I could memorize them, but after repeated tellings I cannot honestly remember the first line of two of them (“Prufrock” sticks with me a bit, which only argues the warning of choosing wisely).

I do know that with each read I come to understand the poems more. And like them more. They are with me. When I read them out loud to my students, I do a better job of it. They are with me.

So think about poems that your students might memorize. We are losing our common cultural currency, but that doesn’t mean we can’t implant some of that culture into their hearts still.

And, for the record, when we showed up for our Milton mid-term, perhaps five or so couplets rattling around in my head, the professor relented and allowed us to use our textbooks. I think I scored a C-.


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