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Memorization and its Discontents

posted: 7.14.09 by archived

By Andrew Flynn

Memorizing poetry is the bugbear of students everywhere. Or, at least that is how I remember things. I felt hatred mixed with ironic bemusement at being forced to memorize Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in my senior English class, and I was not alone. As with many similar tasks, I stuffed the text down on a Tuesday night and regurgitated it Wednesday afternoon for the test, never having properly digested it at all. So things went.

I have no doubt that high school and college students across the nation have similar stories about the tribulations of rote memorization. So, it may come as a surprise to many to learn that our teachers were not just sadists, as we had long supposed. In the teacher’s notes to her Poems, Poets, Poetry, esteemed critic Helen Vendler explains the value of memorization:

Should students memorize poetry? They groan at the very mention of such a task, and it is true that schools have ceased to train verbal memory. (Yet students have better memories than they think they have; lawyers, doctors, and nurses have to memorize huge tracts of information in their professional preparation; trainees in sales have to have immense amounts of product information at their fingertips; accountants have to learn the new tax laws every year. Students should be reminded of their intellectual capacities from time to time, or they forget they have them.) I usually tell students that, as an alternative to writing a paper, they can memorize a poem (or write an imitation or a parody). But students must understand that if they write twenty lines of heroic couplets instead of a paper, these must be real heroic couplets, properly scanning and rhyming; and if they memorize an ode by Keats, they have to be prepared to write it out or recite it on request. I have found that a student who has studied a short poem thoroughly almost always knows a good portion of it by heart; the more thoroughly one has understood the function of each line in advancing the poem, the easier it is to remember the line. You can ask students to memorize their two favorite lines in each of the three poems assigned for each class; by the time they have chosen and learned the two lines, they have often remembered four more.

Vendler is not alone in thinking that memorizing poetry has educational value—and some others are far more gung ho in their defenses. Recently, Jim Holt revealed his long-term memorization project in the pages of the New York Times, disclosing that under the guise of “just another guy on an invisible cell phone,” he was actually walking the streets of Manhattan reciting the more than 100 poems he’s memorized over the past two years. His strategy? Knocking “a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast.”

Michael Knox Beran offered in City Journal — and the Times considered via Britney Spears’ faulty memorization skills (in 2007, she was having trouble lip-syncing her own songs) — insight into the perils of a computer-driven culture that no longer relies on memory.

If you are up for a podcast (5 minutes, 21 seconds), listen to NPR linguist Geoff Nunberg talk about the recitation competitions that Poetry Magazine sponsored across the U.S. a few years ago, modeling them after national spelling bees. It seems recitation makes everyone uneasy, even NPR correspondents.

I’m not sure I can block out memories of all the mind-numbing tedium, but some of the arguments are pretty good. Are you convinced?

Questions — Let Us Know!
1. What effects, positive or negative, have you seen in your students as a result of memorizing poetry?
2. If they’re less than enthusiastic, how do you make memorization more palatable for your students?
3. Consider Jim Holt’s project of reciting poems while walking the streets of New York. Ask your students to “perform” their chosen poem both in the classroom (for practice) and while doing some routine errand. Then ask them to report back on how it went. Did they feel different about their errand while reciting the poem? How? Tell us how it went and we’ll publish the results on the Teaching Poetry blog.


Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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