Memorizing

A Caucasian hand holding a small sheet of paper with a typewritten poem.
Photo by Sarah Brink on Unsplash

Much like meditation a few years ago, enough disparate pieces that I’ve read have talked about the benefits of memorizing poetry that I’ve decided to give it a shot. Because I don’t have enough to do in my life!

Most of my experience with memorization has been with music. I took piano lessons for ten years, and during those ten years I had a piano recital every six months where I’d be expected to perform at least one, and usually two or three, pieces from memory. I also did a three-year stint in marching band, which involved memorizing music alongside drills.

Memorizing poetry? Not so much. It was part of an assignment for freshman year poetry class, and I can’t remember any of the poems I chose to memorize and recite in front of the class. (Except the William Carlos Williams one about the red wheelbarrow and the chickens. Everyone padded out their line count with that poem. The professor was real sick of it by the end of the semester.) The only other time was when I had to recite a short extract from Eugene Onegin for an intercollegiate Russian competition. I did poorly in the competition, but it stuck a little longer with me than the freshman year poetry. Years after my working knowledge of Russian all but vanished, it was still satisfying to be able to repeat the first two lines to myself. Vesna, vesna, pora lyubvi…

As it turns out, memorizing anything is just good brain practice. There’s no doubt a value in it for EFL and foreign language students as well: new vocabulary, examples of complex or confusing grammar points you can call to mind immediately, and engagement with the language culture on a more meaningful level. Wolf also nods to slightly more drastic reasoning in Proust and The Squid: 

On almost any occasion, [my children’s eighty-six-year-old Jewish grandmother, Lotte Noam] can supply an appropriate three-stanza poem from Rilke, a passage from Goethe, or a bawdy limerick—to the infinite delight of her grandsons. Once, in a burst of envy, I asked Lotte how she could ever memorize so many poems and jokes. She answered simply, “I always wanted to have something no one could take away if I was ever put into a concentration camp.”

So after reading about memorization, and specifically poetry memorization, I decided to make a point of committing a few poems to memory. Because I’m a classics nerd, I started with a handful of the Orphic Hymns. It went surprisingly well; the next challenge will probably be in a language besides English. Karin Boye? Goethe? Brushing up on my Pushkin?

Part of the trick is finding poetry I like, and that’s a pretty tall order.

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