I don’t begin by thinking, And now I will commit this poem to memory.
Instead, I’m reading a poem. It’s a poem I’ve read before, but suddenly the letters turn into doors that yield to the touch. I have the urge to say it aloud. I say it aloud. It’s delicious on the tongue: mouth feel is what the food scientists call this. I repeat it again, again. Get a buzz on.
And then my baby’s cry breaks into this trance like a clumsy cartoon burglar. I rise from my chair and go to him. Hello, small son.
Later, my hands deep in yellow dish gloves, scrubbing in a sink of warm water, a rhythmical phrase of the poem swims back to me. It inserts itself with surprising force, and the phrase connects to another, to another, and I find that I’ve memorized a good chunk of the poem, now pleasurably unfurling.
But suddenly I can’t remember what comes next. What comes next? I’ve stopped scrubbing. I’m gazing through the kitchen window but seeing nothing, lips parted, a kiss broken off mid-way. THEN I decide to memorize the poem properly. In this manner, a new poem enters my Hundred.
Jimmy Santiago Baca memorizing Neruda in solitary confinement.
John McCain and General William H. Dean, reciting to themselves in foreign prisons poems they’d learned by heart.
Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, where hundred of thousands of immigrants were detained between 1910-1940 for weeks, months, or, in a few cases, years. So much Chinese poetry carved into the wooden walls that the Immigration officials puttied over the “graffiti.” Which, ironically, preserved the poems. Now Angel Island is a National Historic Landmark.
I say I don’t set out to memorize a poem, but I did, once. I was reading the April Poetry Daily newsletter. In it, Erin Belieu was commenting on “The Voice” by Thomas Hardy, a poem she discovered in a graduate class taught by Derek Walcott, who’d made the class recite it. That Belieu, a poet I admire, was told by Walcott, a poet I admire, to memorize Hardy, a poet I admire—well, I decided to add Hardy’s “The Voice” to my Hundred, and I did.
So now I too hear that voice calling across the wet mead to where the speaker walks alone. The dactylic rhythm of the opening stanzas elicits a sweet, trancelike recall—“Can it be you that I hear?” he asks, picturing his former love as she used to be, when he’d draw “near to the town / Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then, / Even to the original air blue gown!” But the lightness falters as he admits that what he hears is not her voice but only “the breeze, in its listlessness.” This dream of recaptured innocence has been just that; her voice will be “heard no more again far or near.” The poem, like the speaker, lurches on, “faltering forward / Leaves around me falling, / Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward / And the woman calling.”
No matter how intense reading a poem in a book can be, memorizing the poem makes it more visceral, more intense. Physically, we’re free of holding the book, turning the pages, and training our eyes along the line. We’ll avoid the minor but inevitable reading errors that impair or delay perfect comprehension. And when the reader has taken the poem so deeply into the body that it’s memorized, the words don’t need to be understood and processed before they can be reacted to; the gap between the words and emotions they elicit disappears.
Reciting the memorized poem aloud—to oneself, or to others—brings the act of reading to its fruition, in the same way that eating a great meal brings to fruition the conceiving and preparing of it. As the air rises from the lungs through the windpipe and is shaped by its passage through our speech organs and expelled, played out in the emphasis of beats, withheld and released through caesura and line breaks, renewed and patterned by the intake of breaths—we’re creating rhythm, the rhythm that puts us back in harmony with the always rhythmic natural world. And at the same time this is happening, the emotional part of the brain is being triggered; the eyes transmit data to the thalamus, and from there to the sensory processing areas of the neocortex, which signals the amygdala, which provides our emotional reaction to the words (and all this in perhaps as little as one twenty-fifth of a second, according to neuroscientists). It’s no strain to recall that reading poetry is an emotional and intellectual experience, but recitation reminds us that poetry, in some ways, is as physical as dancing. Through recitation, the body and soul are synchronized.
Thomas, Derek, Erin: the voice you’ve heard, I’ve heard. The words you’ve spoken, I’ve spoken. What lips your lips have kissed, my lips have kissed.
We’ve all known solitary confinement. We’ve all inhabited isolation rooms. But the poems we know by heart can visit us there. They arrive as layer cakes, with files baked in.
Of course, one can enjoy poetry without memorizing it. The grand occasions—weddings, funerals—that beg for the gravitas poetry brings can often be anticipated. One comes with a book, and one reads from it. But knowing poems by heart can dignify the unexpected, private grandnesses. Newly nineteen, walking alone in Dover, recalling “Dover Beach” and chanting it to the salt spray, the brute waves. I did that. Though I wasn’t really alone, was I, if Matthew Arnold, that old crank, strolled beside me “down the vast edges drear / and naked shingles of the world?”
Knowing poetry by heart can serve every day’s most quiet need. The homage of our attention on some aspect of the world, suddenly aligning across time with the homage of someone else’s attention. The moment cross hatched, enriched by the perspective of someone who’s thought through it deeply and stated it powerfully. When it’s a noiseless patient spider that we spy: the moment dignified by being caught in that web.
“Keep your eyes open when you kiss,” John Berryman recommends in his Sonnets to Chris. It’s an abruptly shifting, trickstery sonnet, this 36th one, as Berryman intended (his notes to himself read: Beg. & end simple, centre v. elaborate, elevated in diction and syntax”). The couple’s love is so powerful and illicit that it’s turned their worlds upside down, and she should close her eyes not while they kiss but “all silly time else.” I decided to know this poem in the Biblical sense.
Sonnets, with their tight rhymes and logic, are a cinch to memorize, and this one should have been no different: abc, abcwent the sestet. So why did I stumble at the tenth line, every time? Perhaps, I considered, the fault was not mine, but Berryman’s.
Memorizing teaches us about the patterns and relationships, the order and harmony, that bind a poem together. When there’s a power outage in the poem, the memorizer notices. She’s the one, after all, who must reset the clock.
Once the poet Cecilia Woloch told me how, during a trip to Poland, she mentioned a poem she was enamored of. The Polish poet she was speaking to said, “Oh, so you’ve added that poem to your list? Your one hundred poems to memorize?”
So that’s what it’s called, I thought. The Hundred. Though I have several hundred in my Hundred now.
I like to retype them so they share a font, a family resemblance. Then I hole-punch them, put them in a binder. I’m such a dork, I know. But it pleases me, the poems dancing cheek-to-cheek, not organized alphabetically or chronologically but according to my heart’s caprices.
Some of the poems drag with them the places I was when I learned them. Oh yes, this one by Philip Larkin—it comes with its own velocity and hum, for I memorized it in London while taking the tube to school. It was one of the “Poems on the Underground,” between ads for toothpaste and tech school. And this snatch of Tsvetaeva? It’s redolent of the boarded-up seaside town where I had the Scottish boyfriend—it feels grainy, like the bed lovers fall into when they come back from the beach and the sand chafes them raw.
Our memory-muscles get stronger when we work them; that’s why the more we memorize, the easier it gets. That’s also why memorization is hot among Alzheimer’s researchers. A recent study of the Radiological Society of North America looked at adults between the age of 55 and 70 who memorized poems for six weeks, and then were given a magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), which measures neural cell health. This was followed by six weeks of rest and anotherMRS. When tested at the end of the first six weeks, the subjects didn’t appear to have improved memory, but following the six week rest period, their memories were improved, and MRS scans detected new brain cells in the hippocampus, the memory engine of the brain.
Interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that the rest period is necessary, like the white space which poets know is as important as the black ink. The white space of sleep is a powerful mnemonic aid. I can try to learn a poem and know most of it by bedtime. Somehow, waking up the next morning, I know it perfectly. That the brain does some of this memorizing work during sleep can have one drawback, however. I’ve woken in the night buzzy, as if from red-wine-dreams, a phrase of the poem circling, insistent, hitched to itself like a snake biting its tail. Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie…. Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie…. Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie…. Held in its thrall, I can’t return to sleep.
I mis-memorized Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.” The sonnet ends, “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.” I kept saying “…that sings in me no more.” I was reordering the syntax to make it smoother, more iambic. Later I caught my mistake and realized Millay’s wisdom. She needed that metrical hiccup. Because the song in her sings no more. Had I only been reading the poem on the page, I’m not sure I would have learned that.
Often I’m in a conversation in which a gem from my Hundred begs to be flashed—how it would crystallize the moment, expand it a thousand times more than whatever dumb sentences I’ll manage to cobble. Yet I don’t recite it. It would seem showy, though I wouldn’t be quoting it to call attention to myself, any more that I would point out a sunset to take credit for the prismatic rays. Nevertheless: one can recite to a multitude, like Winston Churchill reciting Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” to rally resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War. Or one can recite to a lover, in bed. But anything in the middle makes people squirm.
Perhaps that’s why I remember so fondly a party at a writers conference some summers ago. This was after the evening reading, as we were sitting on the veranda, talking about how the act of writing is perceived in the wider world. A poet named John said, “That reminds me of ‘Adam’s Curse.’ You know, ‘We sat together at one summer’s end / That beautiful mild woman, your close friend, / And you and I, and talked of poetry.’”
“Yes,” I said, smiling, “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”
Then, without discussing it, we were chanting it together, that supple syntax through which three friends discuss art and beauty—a poem which nevertheless ends with the speaker’s inward turn, more quiet for the rhetoric that preceded it, striking a note of solitary grief. Those on the veranda hushed to hear us; from the darkness, two voices summoning Yeats, late arrival at the party, welcome guest.
Elizabeth Bishop loved the castaway, the orphan. My favorite of her displaced people is Robinson Crusoe, the speaker of “Crusoe in England.” Seventeen years after being rescued, he recalls his years stuck on the tropical island. One of his chief annoyances was that he didn’t have a cache of memorized poems to draw from:
… The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems—well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flash upon the inward eye,
which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.
But although Crusoe satisfies his own curiosity, he refuses ours. Is it reticence or shrewdness in Bishop that leaves the blank unanswered? She forces us to mirror Crusoe and look it up.
When we do, we learn the word Crusoe forgot, ironically, is “solitude,” from Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Memorizing poems teaches us about the logic that holds a poem together. For Crusoe, and for Bishop (orphan, expat, lesbian in a homophobic society), only a weak logic links bliss with solitude.
I told my undergrads in my class on poetic forms that they’d have to recite three poems during the semester. “Damn,” one student whispered to another, “This chick is old school.”
Old school: in ancient Athens, boys memorized passages of Homer chosen to shape their characters and present their culture’s accumulated wisdom. Through memorization, it was believed, one not only became a better citizen, but enlightened one’s soul. This is why, according to linguist Robert Oliphant, “Athenian prisoners who could recite in full The Iliad and The Odyssey were spared from slaving away in Sicilian stone quarries”; they deserved a better fate.
So too America valued memorization at the heart of the curriculum. An example from eighty years ago illustrates this well. The 1927 Course of Study in Literature for Elementary Schools suggests the following for eighth grade memorization: Arnold, Browning, Burns, Dickinson, Kipling, Shakespeare, Southey, Whitman, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But by the 1940’s, progressive educators considered rote memorization to be a form of slavish imitation, free from creativity or individualism. They pushed it aside as the “sage on the stage” model in favor of a more dynamic, student-centered learning.
Now, once again, memorization has a place in the classroom, due in part to hip hop culture, poetry slams, and sponsorship from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts’ Poetry Out Loud campaign. Research by cognitive scientists lends credence to the belief that memorization can foster, not hinder, creativity. Because poetry provides us sophisticated linguistic and intellectual patterning, the poems we know expand our range of possibilities not just for vocabulary and imagery, but for syntax and structure and logic. These patterns train our ears and our brains.
We each have a language store, and when we memorize poetry, we’re expanding it, building new shelves and stocking them with quality merchandise. If we don’t memorize poetry, our shallow shelves are still being stocked, but with the shoddy stuff foisted on us by popular culture. Plop, plop. Fizz. Fizz.
After a poem enters my Hundred, it remains as a rhythmical template that, on occasion, leaps forward to guide me when composing. This sounds alarming to my beginning poetry students, some of whom don’t want to read poetry books to avoid “being influenced” or “losing their style.” In response, I tell them the Chinese proverb: “He who knows a hundred poems sounds like a hundred poems; he who knows a thousand poems sounds like himself.”
The poem we know by heart doesn’t to force us to travel where we don’t want to go. Instead, as we struggle to make headway on a snowy day, we can look down and see boot prints. Stepping inside them speeds our journey.
They call it “muscle memory,” the dancers who have taken choreography so thoroughly into their bodies that they move without consciously rehearsing the steps, freeing themselves to concentrate on projecting the nuances of emotion. Neuroscientists say that the choreography becomes so thoroughly mapped that the dancer has created more efficient neural pathways between the brain and the muscles.
When we memorize poetry, we’re building muscle memory; we’re better prepared to execute future poems. As Angel Corella of the American Ballet Theatre says, “You work your muscle memory in rehearsal so that when you get onstage … You don’t even think about what the body is doing anymore. When I go into the wings, I can’t remember what I’ve done. I don’t remember if my foot was pointed.” We don’t know where our best poems come from; they are wiser and more capacious than we are. Did I write that? we ask from the wings of our lives. I don’t even remember if my foot was pointed.
One suggestion on Poetry Out Loud website to help high school students improve their recitations is to create a tone map. Poems create a “narrative of emotions,” says Dana Gioia on the Poetry Out Loud CD, by progressing through a series of tones and moods. Students who learn to identify these tonal shifts can recite with sensitivity and meaning, which in turn can “train their emotional intelligence.”
To build this tonal awareness, students are to listen to recitations, mark shifts of tone, and map them. A “vocabulary of feeling” list is included. Is a particular phrase defamatory, denunciatory, or devil-may-care? Tired, touchy, or trenchant? There is perhaps something slightly Audubonian here, the students killing the bird in order to label its bright plumage. But it also strikes me as a good way to start. Later, they can approach recitation more instinctively. At the age of twenty-two, Berryman wrote his mother on how he came to “hear” Yeats’s “A Prayer for Old Age,” at last: “Like most of his poems, it should be read aloud a hundred times—sometimes only after weeks have I understood an intonation.” I’ve learned that the longer I’ve known a poem, that more shifts and nuances I hear in it, and the more subtle and complex my recitation becomes. I’ve come to think of my Hundred—that dorky binder of hole-punched, much thumbed papers—as a collection of sheet music. And I’ve come to think of all poetry as a musical score for one instrument, an instrument that’s forged of human air.
Section 3: For information about how the brain produces emotional reactions, see “Brain’s Design Emerges as Key to Emotions,” by Daniel Goleman, The New York Times, Aug. 15, 1989.
Section 5: Berryman’s compositional notes, as well as the letter to his mother quoted in Section 14, are found in Charles Thornbury’s introduction to John Berryman’s Collected Poems, 1937-1971 (FSG, 1989). The same intro also states that Berryman memorized poems by “Shakespeare, Donne, Swift, Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Auden as well as those of his contemporaries Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Bishop, and Lowell.”
Section 7: “Rote Learning Improves Memory in Seniors,” Nov. 27, 2006, www.rsna.org
Section 11: The Robert Oliphant article is “Solitary Confinement, Zakarias Moussaoui, and the Staying Power of Mnemonic Civilization,” July 11, 2007, EdNews, www.ednews.org. For more information on the effect of memorization on students’ educations, see Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. For more on the research cognitive scientists are doing on memorization, see Committed to Memory: How We Remember and Why We Forget by Rebecca Rupp, Crown Publishers, NY, 1998. The information on the 1927 Course of Study in Literature for Elementary Schools is found in Michael Knox Beran’s “In Defense of Memory,” City Journal, Summer 2004.
Section 13: “Learning to Dance, One Chunk at a Time,” by Diane Solway in The New York Times, Sunday, May 27, 2007.
Section 15: The Poetry Out Loud CD, and other information relevant to the NEA program, can be found atwww.poetryoutloud.org