Memorizing Poems

"Got Poetry", a delightful essay by Jim Holt, appears at the back of the New York Times Sunday book review section today [1]. For the past few years Holt reports that he has been memorizing poems. "I recite them to myself while jogging along the Hudson River, quite loudly if no other joggers are within earshot. I do the same, but more quietly, while walking around Manhattan on errands—just another guy on an invisible cellphone." He describes his method:

[T]he key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I've already got. At the moment, I'm 22 lines into Tennyson's "Ulysses," with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I'll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.

The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem—the "duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA" of iambic pentameter, say—and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It's a physical feeling, and it's a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It's the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory—doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer's emotions. And with poetry you don't need a piano.

Holt rejects three myths:

Myth No. 1: Poetry is painful to memorize. It is not at all painful. Just do a line or two a day.

Myth No. 2: There isn't enough room in your memory to store a lot of poetry. Bad analogy. Memory is a muscle, not a quart jar.

Myth No. 3: Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.

Holt also dismisses with humor various purported benefits of learning poems by heart. Really, as he says, "It's all about pleasure. And it's a cheap pleasure."

I concur. I'm working now on learning William Stafford's "In My Journal". As I've told friend Kate Abbott, if she starts to suffer during a long run with me I'll just recite poetry—and that will immediately distract her from any amount of pain!

(cf. ByHeart (2001-11-28), ZhurnalAnniversary2 (2001-04-04), InMyJournal (2005-01-29), ...) - ^z - 2009-04-05