In the spring of 2014, I was a teleprompter for a local poetry festival in Asheville, NC. From kindergarten to high school students, students took the stage and recited verses to an audience of family and friends. Toddlers tripled nursery rhymes, middle schoolers delivered tons of awesome nursery rhymes – this one by Shel SilversteinSickhas always been popular – and high schoolers often took aim at the stars. My job was to sit in the front row with copies of all the poems, ready to help if someone stumbled or forgot a line.
The most impressive performance I’ve witnessed in my three years as a prompter was a rendition of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by TS Eliot. The performer, Carolyn, had taken some of the seminars I had given to homeschoolers for several years, and I was aware of her academic and acting abilities, but that night she blew my mind. She recited without error or hesitation, including the first six lines in Italian. “Prufrock” is a long free verse piece with a few lines of rhyme but no particular meter. If you know the poem, you are now probably as impressed as I am. If not, you can read it here.
Many educators have long disdained memorization, whether it be poetry or multiplication tables. Google “memorization in school,” and you’ll find arguments back and forth about the value of committing facts, dates, and yes, even poetry, to memory. The best of these views, I believe, are those that advocate a balance between memory work and analytical thinking. From India, for example, comes a article which judiciously favors a combination of the two approaches in class.
However, to dismiss the memorization tool entirely is to ignore a fundamental aspect of child development, a fact that Annie Holmquist, editor of Intellectual Takeout, mentions in her 2017 article, “Children have amazing memory powers… So why aren’t schools using them?” The article revisits “The Lost Tools of Learning,” the essay in which author Dorothy Sayers strongly advocates memorization in early education, the “Poll-Parrot” stage. According to Sayers, and as many parents recognize, kindergarten and elementary school children possess an incredible ability to assimilate multiplication tables, historical and scientific facts, foreign languages and, of course, nursery rhymes and poetry.
The memorization of poetry seems to me particularly important, because it confers singular gifts on its recipients. On the one hand, by taking the tempo of the verse and making it our own, we unconsciously transmit the rhythm and meter of our English language to the mind. As a schoolboy, Winston Churchill memorized and recited the 1,200 lines of the “Lays of ancient Rome,” and went on to re-enter his mind dozens of other verses as well. The cadences and musical language of these lines undoubtedly contributed to his powers as a speaker and writer.
In addition to imbuing us with the beauty of our native language, poetry acts as an inner flame that can inspire us through hardships long after we have left the schoolyard. by Rudyard Kipling”Whetherfor example, which I had memorized in some classes, remains in the hearts of these students even today, perhaps whispering encouragement when they need it most.
In a college seminar I taught on composition and literature, I made “The Impossible Dream” our class anthem. We sang that Broadway hit from “Man of La Mancha” every once in a while, and some students ended up memorizing most of the lyrics. Several years later, when I met one of these students, she thanked me, saying that she had thought of this song many times and that it had supported her in her studies and her social life.
As with so many things, memorizing poetry is best started with small steps. Teach a lot of nursery rhymes to these three and four year olds. Often all you have to do is read and repeat, read and repeat, and they’ll lock the verse down. Give older students short assignments at first, such as “dreams“by Langston Hughes or Emily Dickinson”There is no frigate like a book.” From there, students can move on to longer poems by William Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Browning, Robert Frost, and dozens more. These pieces are best approached by breaking them down into parts and constantly reviewing the stanzas already learned.
I also recommend a visit to the library, where you can take a look at the many anthologies. Go through them and choose the poems that interest you. Better yet, select a few favorite collections and keep them at home.
Learn poetry by heart, and its words, rhythms, images and meaning become like that beating muscle in your chest, a part of you that gives life until the end of your days.
This article was originally published on intellectual take away