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Peter W. Wood Headshot

Forget Google, Memorize Poems

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We live in the I-can-always-look-it-up era. One consequence: not much need to memorize.

Actually, forgetting to memorize was in vogue long before Google, Wikipedia, and the galaxy of search tools and near-universal online libraries we all enjoy gave us an easy way out. The Internet just reinforced a cultural disposition that began early in the 20th century, when educators who had themselves grown up laboring over dark Latin texts and jamming yards of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" into their heads --

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water

-- decided enough was enough and invented the "progressive education" that, in its myriad variations, is pretty much all we have today.

The shores of Gitche Gumee (Lake Superior) have never been the same since. Broadly speaking, we went from a 19th century notion of education as a combination of disciplining the mind and filling it with knowledge, to a modern notion of education as exploring, discovering, and practicing. What used to be called the "art of memory" fell by the wayside.

Indeed, these days it is hard to find a teacher who doesn't automatically refer to the work of active memorizing with a prefatory put-down: mere memorization, rote memorization. We are urged to hustle past this intellectually barren territory to reach the lush Maui of "critical thinking" or the Grand Tetons of "creative expression."

Nothing against Maui or the Grand Tetons, but in the hustle to get beyond memory we miss some fine things. The drudgery that comes with memorizing a longish poem, for example, often amply repays itself. The poem is afterwards there when you need it. It can crystallize a feeling you couldn't quite bring to the surface. It can dart out as a phrase from a friend that reveals a secret commonality.

Earlier generations spoke of memorizing literature as "furnishing the mind," and that's exactly what it feels like. We end up furnished not just with words strung together but with ready ways of seeing and feeling that prompt us to look closer, listen better, and perhaps speak more clearly.

I don't recommend that people who do memorize poems go around reciting them to others. That wears out its welcome pretty quickly. But having some poems in your head never hurt anybody. In fact, there are a surprising number of Americans who have slipped past the "don't memorize" guards at the classroom doors and made a personal practice of rote memorizing poetry -- and other allegedly useless stuff. We are hiding in plain sight and recognize one another with signs and countersigns. If someone inconspicuously drops half a line from a poem into conversation and is met a moment later with the other half dropped in as if by accident, a conspiracy has been launched.

As with all conspiracies, participants lie low. They don't out one another.

The movement does, however, have above-ground advocates. Garrison Keillor, when he isn't bringing the news from Lake Wobegon or chronicling the mishaps of Guy Noir, has been conspicuous in the cause. One of Keillor's standards for the poems he recites in his Writer's Almanac radio series and puts in his anthologies ( Good Poems, Good Poems for Hard Times, Good Poems, American Places) is that they be "memorable." Nearly 20 years ago, the poet John Hollander headed a commission appointed by the Academy of American Poets that produced an anthology, Committed to Memory, which has become an ongoing project. A genre has emerged of anthologies (Whisper and Shout) and websites (Poems to Memorize) offering help for the beginner.

Choosing a poem to memorize is a bit like choosing to a get a tattoo. Both involve ink, and the results are close to permanent, so it is a good idea to choose carefully.

Tattooing and memorizing might also seem to share an element of vanity. Certainly the advocates of memorizing poetry can reach for some fancy explanations of why this is good for us. A recent work of literary scholarship, The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930, by Meredith Martin, cites pedagogues such as Matthew Arnold who believed rote memorization of English poems was character-building. Catherine Robson's Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem dives deeper into how memorizing poems shaped both personal character and public culture into the 1950s. Robson's book was widely and enthusiastically reviewed, and occasioned a telling essay by the poet Brad Leithauser, "Why We Should Memorize Poetry," in The New Yorker. He offers a résumé of the old reasons: "to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; [and] to strengthen the brain through exercise."

Leithauser fully acknowledges the Google problem: we don't have to memorize a poem to lay eyes on the text in a few seconds. But he responds as I and many other neo-memorizers do. The poem you memorize differs qualitatively from the one you merely read. You "take the poem inside you" and make it part of your "brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen."

In my experience, a poem once memorized is dramatically different from one you may have read a dozen times on paper or pixel. It has a different texture, a different sound, and it moves in different and sometimes surprising ways. I can't explain those differences but they somehow seem important.

Leithauser is among the renegade band of contemporary English professors who have returned to insisting that their students memorize poems. In my experience, students usually balk at these assignments. The bolder ones, parroting a century of progressive pedagogy, tell you that memorization is an intellectually deadening exercise. But after they do it, they are changed, changed utterly.