An Old-Fashioned New Year's Resolution: Memorize More Poetry!

01/06/2014 04:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014
  • Evan Gottlieb Associate Professor of English, Oregon State University

To begin the new year, I've resolved to go back to something old: in 2014, I'm going to try to memorize a poem a week, each at least a sonnet's length (14 lines). Does this sound weird? I kind of hope it does. I freely admit that there are many other potential New Year's resolutions that I would do well to adopt: lose five pounds (or 10), volunteer regularly, spend more time with my kids, learn a new language. And I know that, compared to these, resolving to memorize more poetry sounds both frivolous and outdated.

Once upon a time, of course, memorization and recitation formed the backbone of the Anglo-American educational system. But with the rise of new pedagogical values like fostering creativity and supporting young people's self-esteem, memorization has been downgraded and practically eliminated from most curricula, especially in the humanities. I'm not going to argue that we need to return more memorization to the classroom -- although some experts, at least, are already doing precisely this. Instead, I'd like to describe some of the benefits I hope to get from memorizing verse, both as an English professor and as a regular human being (two categories, I hasten to add, which are not mutually exclusive!).

First, reciting poetry in the classroom is an excellent way to get students' attention; as one colleague put it, "It really freaks them out when I begin teaching Milton's Paradise Lost by reciting the first 25 lines!" Part of this effect, no doubt, has to do with memorization's status as a lost art. In our age of ubiquitous smartphones, apps, and search engines, we have so much information at our fingertips that, except in artificial settings like exams, we have successfully outsourced remembering things to the Web and the Cloud. Being able to recite poetry to a class of students or, for that matter, to a group of friends has a kind of retro-novelty value, like turning a cartwheel or playing the harmonica. But beyond this nerdy cool factor, reciting poetry displays and literally performs in real time one's interest in and dedication to the verses one has memorized. This kind of enthusiasm can't be bought -- it can only be displayed in the hopes that, as William Wordsworth writes at the end of his great autobiographical "The Prelude" (1850), "what we have loved,/ Others will love, and we will teach them how."

But memorization and poetry go together well in other ways too. For starters, they're a natural fit, since much of the earliest poetry around the world originated in oral traditions, usually developed by folkways rather than by individuals, and passed down via memorization, performance, reception, and re-memorization. (Walter Ong's 1972 study, "Orality and Literacy," remains the classic account of the more-or-less global transition from oral to writing-based civilizations.) For better or worse, many of us may now have moved on to primarily visual modes of communication and perception in our everyday lives, as theorists of postmodernity like Paul Virilio argue. Memorizing lines of verse may help reconnect us to those older forms of communal bonding. And it certainly helps keep our brains fresh; as research increasingly suggests, regularly engaging in memorization tasks not only makes it easier to remember more things longer, but also correlates with associated mental benefits like greater attentiveness, increased creativity, and longer-lasting brain plasticity.

But all of the above, for me, are incidental to the real value of memorizing poetry: getting better acquainted with the poems themselves. When you begin to memorize a poem -- and there are many mnemonic techniques from which to choose -- you immediately become immersed in its formal and aesthetic qualities. How long is the first line? What kind of meter does it use? What about techniques like alliteration and consonance? Then you move to second line and beyond, asking the same questions and adding more. What rhyme scheme is being employed? Has the meter shifted, or remained the same? How many lines are in this stanza, and are they the same as those in the next? (For an accessible but thorough introduction to the nuts and bolts of poetry, I suggest Rhian Williams' Poetry Toolkit.)

Finally, there is the meaning of the words themselves. In my experience, it's easier to memorize a poem if you understand what it's about; the author's choices of diction, imagery, and figurative language are all easier to recall once you begin to appreciate the narratives, themes, moods, and arguments that they articulate or express. This works the other way around, too: repetition -- an essential part of the memorization process -- facilitates ever-deeper comprehension of the verses one is trying to memorize. This last point is especially important if you want to be able to recite a given poem with any degree of feeling; nobody wants to be subjected to, say, Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") performed in a robotic monotone -- especially not when they can hear a wonderful actor like Tom Hiddleston gracefully bring it to life on YouTube.

Of course, I don't claim to be able to entrance a crowd like Loki himself; although I already know a few attention-getting limericks, I won't repeat them here. (Their compact size and frequently rude subject matter makes them all too easy to remember, alas.) But even though I've only just begun to keep my resolution to memorize one poem a week in 2014, I think I can already identify a further benefit to learning this lost art. Even when I'm merely repeating my chosen poems to myself for practice, I feel like I've given myself a gift that cost me nothing but a little time and effort: the gift of having smart, impassioned, enlivening verse to reflect on at a moment's notice. By the end of the year, I plan to have accumulated a small library of poems in my head, to call up whenever I need or want them. With Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton, Emily Dickinson, and a host of others to keep me company, I think 2014 will truly be a year to remember.