Sometimes, I am a crazy person walking the street. I have a reactive dog, and recently I’ve been trying something new. When another dog is near us, and Finn is about to turn into a whirling dervish of spastic barking, I recite poetry from memory. This week I’ve memorized the prologue to Romeo & Juliet. Next up is “Ocean” by Mary Oliver.
I am sure my neighbors think I am a nutter (especially the German ones), but the dog seems to like this practice. She’s getting calmer every month, and I am archiving some wonderful verse. Memorizing poetry is an utterly “old school” act, but it has real value. I am asking my grade 7 students to memorize a poem of at least ten lines as one of the closing activities of the year.
I proposed the idea after discussing Nelson Mandela and his recitation of “Invictus” during his darkest hours of imprisonment. I was describing the poem to my students, and then I thought, why don’t I just look for a recitation online? It turns out, Morgan Freeman explains the power of memorized verse much more powerfully than I do:
My grade 7 students and I have been talking about why one should bother memorizing a cherished poem. Here’s what we’ve come up with:
- Memorizing poems makes them more personal. We get to lock these words away, and nobody can take them. It’s the “most secure download.”
- Robert Pinsky visited one of my classes in the past, and he preached that poetry must be read aloud. Poetry is not poetry if it exists only on the page, so memorizing a poem helps us breathe life into it.
- Memorizing the poem helps us hear the rhythm of the language. We can better understand meter, rhyme, and syllabic pattern when we work to master the exact words in the exact order.
- Knowing at least one poem by heart makes us more interesting.
- Memorizing can be fun.
My students are enjoying the exercise of memorization. I rarely ask them to memorize, so they find novelty in the act. This classroom work has sparked some informal research on my part. Here’s what I’ve been reading recently on the topic of memorization: