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John Lundberg


Should Students Be Memorizing Poetry?

Posted: 06/17/2012 2:38 pm

How much value is there in memorizing poetry? Britain's education secretary, Michael Gove, apparently thinks there's a pretty significant amount. He's requiring all of the UK's grammar school children to memorize and recite poems as part of a new, more rigorous national curriculum.

The Guardian summarized some of Gove's plans:

From Year 1, at the age of five, children will be read poems by their teacher as well as starting to learn simple poems by heart and practise recitals.

The programme of study for Year 2 will state that pupils should continue "to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart and recite some of these, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear".

I don't believe that memorization is common practice in the American education system. At least, I don't remember ever being asked to memorize a poem in school. I think it's significant, though, that the only strong memory I have of studying poetry before college is having to engage with a poem: to reorder some of T.S. Eliot's lines to create a "new" poem. I remember wrestling with what Eliot's images meant before I could do anything with them. I also remember becoming vividly aware, for the first time, of poetry's music, and feeling a little thrill from getting the chance to manipulate it. It was power. Something like giving a boy (admittedly, kind of a geeky boy) a real bow and arrow.

Memorization, I think, has a similar effect. In a Poetry Foundation podcast on the pleasures of memorizing verse, poet Dan Beachy-Quick eloquently described how memorization "inscribes" a poem in one's mind more than a simple reading ever could:

Memorizing a poem, in a strange sort of way, gives that poem access to you more than you're giving yourself access to it. Which is to say that putting the poem in oneself -- in one's memory and mind -- and going through this rote activity until every line of it, every syllable... is present in me, leaves the poem in me. And it's as if it creates a new channel of intelligence in me that isn't mine at all.

Beachy-Quick had just memorized William Bronk's poem "The World," which is kind of an easy one (just four beautiful and melancholy lines). You can feel the "drift of the world" pulling the poem apart as you read it:

I thought that you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn't an anchor anywhere.
There isn't an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.

Reading Bronk's poem reminded me why I memorize poems today. A poem can be a sort of anchor in the drift of the world. Whether it serves as a bit of wisdom that helps keep you centered, or, in my case, as a feeling, a moment of beauty and power that helps keep my other feelings in perspective.

The poet and critic Clive James feels even more strongly than I do. He wrote in his book Cultural Amnesia that "the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart."

Do you agree? Or do you think forcing a kid to memorize a Shakespeare sonnet is no more useful than forcing him to eat a brussels sprout? Share your thoughts below. And let me know if you had to memorize any poems in school -- and if you still remember them!