Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Memorizing poetry

Why undergo the laborious process of memorizing a poem these days, when—tap, tap, tap—you have it at your fingertips? Has this become another outmoded practice? When I was a Boy Scout, in the sixties, I spent some hours trying to learn Morse code and even, on a couple of overly sunny, headachey afternoons, trying to communicate by flag semaphore. Some things were meant to disappear. (And many of my students wish that assignments to memorize poems would follow them.)

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”


stu said...


OK, this provokes me. Here's a question: How do you read poetry? I ask in all seriousness, because I suspect that I'm doing it wrong, or at least, in a manner that's less than optimally productive.

Crucial observation: You can't read a book of poetry like you'd read a novel. Or at least, not like I'd read a novel, which is often in a big, fast, sloppy gulp.

Part of this is that poetry (or at least the poetry I'm reading of late) has to be puzzled out a bit. In this, it's more like reading a technical book -- in that you have to stop and think on almost every page. This probably isn't a comparison that recommends itself to you, but it makes sense to me.

You can't speed read poetry. You have to linger over the words -- ideally speak them aloud if you're in a place where that's possible, but hear them even if you're not. In this, I think Thompson's analogy with wine-drinking is apt, at least so long as you take it analogically rather than literally -- swirl it around a bit first, smell it, sip it, savor it. Talk about it with your friends. Don't just slam it down. Or so it seems to me.

But the consequence is that I find myself getting impatient. I'll read a few poems -- 3, 4, a dozen tops, and then find myself sated, unable to continue productively. So I'll set the book aside, sometimes to return to it, sometimes not.

So, again, how do you read poetry? In nibbles or gulps? Do you try to memorize them all, or do you pick and choose? Or not try at all? Do you find the appeal in sentiments, or verbal engineering? Are you tempted to respond? To edit? How do you think about the process of reading poetry? How do you persist?

G. M. Palmer said...

Actually, I do read them straight through like novels.

Or that's what I've been doing lately.

I really think they should work as a book and not just two thick halves of paper with other pages between them.

I read them through again.

Then I start to pick and choose and go to what most moves me.

But I generally take an hour or three and read the book two or more times.

Otherwise I don't feel like I'm appreciating the "bookness" of the collection.

Now, just sort of reading poetry by itself

and not presented in book form

is a bit different. I think read and reread and delve and experiment. That is, I try to make connections and think about why the poet used this word and not that phrase, etc.

stu said...

Ah. Skim, then dive. Makes sense. I'll try it. Thanks.