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.