In Praise of Memorization

Emily Dickinson

Not a topic that anyone might expect from a blogger concerned with education innovation, but there it is.  I’ve had recent cause to reconsider memorization in a more positive light.  It started with a pact that my friend, Louise, and I made together.  We share a love and admiration of poetry – and along with it – a regret that we don’t spend more time with it.  Together, we decided that we would each choose a published poem, memorize it, and then recite it to each other. On the surface, it just felt like a good way to devote more time to poetry.

Louise chose a Shelley poem, called The Moon.  I went with Emily Dickenson.

The Brain – is wider than the Sky-

For – put them side by side –

The one the other will contain

With ease – and You – beside –

The Brain is deeper than the sea

For – hold them – Blue to Blue –

The one the other will absorb

As Sponges – Buckets – do

The Brain is just the weight of God –

For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –

And they will differ if they do

As syllable from sound

We both worked on our respective poems for a few weeks and then, over dinner one night, recited them to each other.  Louise did a lovely job – she had the language and emphases just right and I found myself really enjoying the experience of hearing the poem, as opposed to reading it.

While one might expect the benefits of hearing a poem read aloud, the unexpected benefit of the endeavor, for me, was the process of memorizing it.  I found it surprisingly difficult to do.  It took me a couple of weeks and, I must confess, it wasn’t easy.  I worked on it while I was doing other things – driving, walking, taking a shower.  I took the poem in couplets.  Broke it down.  Sought the rhythms.  And, importantly, eeked out an interpretation as I went.  It wasn’t until I got those last two lines  – And they will differ if they do – As syllable from sound – committed to memory that the penny dropped for me on this poem. Ahhhh…..

Later in the week, I heard the writer David Rakoff (who was diagnosed with lymphoma) tell the story of reciting an Elizabeth Bishop poem (Letter to NY) whenever he has to go in for an MRI.  Not only does it calm fears, he reports, but it actually reorders his mind.  I like that.

Memorization’s reputation went up another notch for me as I observed my son (who is in the Shakespeare class that I’ve blogged about a couple of times already) manage a couple of memorization assignments from The Bard.  One assignment was to memorize and recite a sonnet of his choosing and the other was a speech from the play Twelfth Night.  I heard him, pacing around the house, reciting his lines….stumbling over the language, and then eventually, finding the music in the phrasing and then fluently delivering it.  It was absolutely beautiful.

And I realized that he, with his Twelfth Night, and me with my Emily D. now owned those works.  We had gotten inside the nuances of the language, dove into its music, and carried forward a new interpretation as a result of the sheer time logged with it and the fact that it was in our heads, we no longer needed to rely on the book as translater.  For my son, when he recites the passage from Twelvefth Night today in class, he will have the added dimension of performing the passage – and, afterall, it was written in order to be performed.

And for me, I will carry Emily’s #632 for the rest of my days.



Filed under Reflections

6 responses to “In Praise of Memorization

  1. That’s a wonderful project to do with your friend. Language is beautiful, and finding a beautiful way to say it out loud is a process and a skill to be treasured.

    That said, in the context of education memorization is such a loaded word. What you did was so much more than just to memorize. I think we need an entirely new word if we are going to have success in encouraging teachers to help students through the process you just described. It embodies so much more than just the words.

    I don’t think it’s possible to rehabilitate “memorization” as a concept for schools. The history of how it was used in the past is too dark.

    Memorization as a concept for students is entirely inadequate and loaded. It took me half of your beautiful post to recover from the shock of seeing the title!

    What you described is wonderful, and your son’s teacher is obviously a gem. Just saying the words is not enough, and just telling students to learn to say them isn’t either. The real question is what word can describe that process and help others to learn how to do it?

  2. rheyden

    Oh, how right you are, Liz. It pained me even to write that title (!), given all the baggage we have with the word “memorization”. A new word for this process is a very good suggestion and maybe a good start along the road from straight, old, rote memorization to a performance of understanding?

  3. hope you get plenty of tweets/ideas for the new word for what you did with this Emily Dickinson poem!

  4. Kate

    You do need a new word. If you watch Keanu Reeves in “Much Ado about Nothing,” that’s memorization. He didn’t understand a word he was saying (in fairness, I only saw the movie once, when it first came out, so perhaps he wasn’t as wretched as I remember). Or if you listen to music sung by someone in a language other than their own… memorization. Really, rote memorization.

    What you and your friend did was learn, I think. Yes, you learned with a goal of being able to repeat, but you gained meaning from something that hadn’t had it before.

    I recently realized that I’d had the author of “This Is Just to Say” completely wrong… I’d somehow remembered it as Stevens, not Williams (and the title as “The Apology”). Oops. But y’know? I haven’t unlearned the poem, which I can recite mostly correctly despite all I had wrong about it. That feeling, that ability to almost taste those plums? That ain’t memorizing. And neither is your knowledge of #632.

    Of course, the plums had a whole helluva lot to do with Stevens Williams, too.

    While some (noob) actors might talk about memorizing their lines, most refer to learning their lines. ‘Cause they have to get the character, the nuance, and the feeling… not just the words.

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