Friday, April 29, 2005

Poems Memorized

Usually when I ask my undergraduate students if they've ever had to memorize poems at any stage in their education before they take one of my classes, without hesitation they answer, "No." Not in kindergarten (though they may recall nursery rhymes), not in grade school, not in junior high, not in high school. They are required to engage in close, critical reading in my university's introductory poetry class, but I've never taught it, so I'm not sure if there are any mnemonic exercises. I usually don't require them to do so either in my fiction writing or literature classes, since there's no pedagogical need, though if and when I teach a poetry writing or theory class again I will require this since I do believe memorization of poems has many benefits, one of which is the necessity to engage with those aspects of poems that are mnemonic, thus tying us to poetry's past and our oral antecedents (when a key element of all poems and spoken forms was that they could be recalled). The few graduate students I've worked with have almost all been fiction writers or future literary scholars (or both), and when the demand to memorize poems for their oral exams arises, they also tell me this is a novel (and scary) challenge for them.

I did have to learn poems by heart from childhood on. I have already posted one, "A Dream Deferred" (also known as "Harlem") by Langston Hughes, for a public performance before a black cultural group when I was about 11. In my various English (and foreign language) classes I had to memorize poems, or at least familiarize myself with sections of them; one test question almost surely drew upon the ability to recognize a given poet's lines and style. I always had teachers who knew poems by heart, in part because they all came from the generation (born before the 1960s) where this was still part of the curriculum. In addition, both my parents and grandparents, who attended segregrated schools in the South and Midwest, had to learn "classic" poems by heart for school, while for church they learned to recite the Psalms and other religious texts. (Anyone who attends Catholic school for more than a few years and has to attend Masses regularly eventually internalizes the basic liturgy, the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and various religious songs, such as the Magnificat and "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," so I don't count any of these.)

In college and graduate school, I also had professors who were able to cite whole sections of poems (and novels, speeches, etc.), almost error-free, without referring to the printed texts, often to the amazement of the class. At one point I audited a class with critic and schlar Harold Bloom, who, as is well known, has committed much of the Anglo-American poetic canon to memory, and supposedly can recite Paradise Lost backwards. I found Bloom's knowledge a bit unnerving--he would sometimes shift from Stevens to Whitman to Keats to Yeats to Shakespeare without so much as a stumble. Of course I never heard him recite authors outside the Western tradition (big surprise!), and I didn't always have the poem he was reciting in front of me to check it against his version, but in general I believe he was very close to perfect, and his performances were, among other things, impressive.

One might argue that memorization can have a conservative effect, in that the memorized model becomes not only a point of reference or a starting point, but a straitjacket--I don't deny this possibility, but I think the risk is worth it. On the other hand, having a sense of poetry's possibilities can also be very useful, and the attention to language and what makes poems memorable sediment in one's consciousness, which can prove to be useful later on when writing new ones. As an adult, I was again required to memorize a poem, by my workshop leader Michael S. Harper, a fantastic poet. It was a fun exercise. (Once on a train from Philadelphia a young brotha asked me to recite some of my poems, and I couldn't, so then he popped off two of his, which were essentially raps, and suggested that as a poet I have some of my own ready just in case--of what?) I've since set as a challenge to memorize a number of poems, including some of my own, and I won't go into how successful I've been, though some have stuck better than others, and there are even some postmodern, non-formalist, non-song lyric poems, which bombastic critics like Camille Paglia deride as "unmemorable," among them.

Here in any case are five of the many poems I've had to memorize over the last four decades, all essential traditional and canonical in certain ways, though all are extraordinary poems as well; in each, the poet draws upon the traditional resources of poetry (form, meter, rhyme, etc.) such that an imprint isn't so difficult after a bit of focus. The last is the most recent one I had to learn, Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," one of the best and most-moving poems in the English language. (Did I type them all out from memory--what do you think? Echoing my students, "No." [cue stage laughter] Believe me, my memory these days is shot; I can recall minor details of student work, but you know, after looking at over 50 student stories and novellas in the span of nine months, not even Funes would be able to keep up.) I sometimes think, thought, that this could be either an art project or a "Tonight Show" bit--"Do you know a poem by heart? By whom? Why/when did you memorize it? Recite it."


by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourne;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

:: :: ::

by William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

:: :: ::

by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

:: :: ::

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

:: :: ::

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?


  1. Interesting. I had to memorize poems as a kid -- for Black History Month celebrations, for Easter plays, for other plays. In jr. high the whole 7th grade had to memorize 5 speeches from Julius Caesar. We had great fun with that outside of class, though many of us trembled during the recitation. I do know a few of my poems by heart -- short ones -- usually ones I've written on the road b/c I've had to remember them until I got to paper. I write poems that become songs and those I remember. I've memorized rhymes or parts of rhymes "nineteen eighty nine. a number. another summer. sound of the funky drummer . . . " It's a beautiful thing when you can tell back a poem or rhyme with another person who has also memorized it. I don't feel constricted in this at all. For me, memorizing a poem teaches me about what I've never heard in them before. For example, I've not memorized it, but in coming close to memorizing "Those Winter Sundays", I realized that I always missed "the chronic angers of that house" -- which seems very important. I'm going to require my students to memorize some poems and passages, too. And I'm going to do it *with* them!

  2. John, you have GOT to get out of my head! I, too, have been thinking about memorization. We had to memorize bits of Shakespeare in High School, and I still remember a Poe poem that I memorized on my own (it begins -- the line breaks are probably wrong --, "From childhood's hour I have not been/as others were, I have not seen/as others saw....." pretty obvious why I liked that one!:). I've been reading the Library of America selection of Theodore Roethke and thinking to myself, as much as I love them, I really should memorize "My Papa's Waltz" and "The Waking" (at least), and some other favorites by other poets. Its an amazing thing to hold these works inside your mind/memory and body in this way.

    You might also remember, btw, that when Mr Harper gave that memorization exercise, many folks groaned and *hated it*! He's so 'old fashioned'!

    Finally, I too have had people ask me to recite a poem of my own (the first person that asked said 'Can you spit one?' which, while it might be the proper Slam locution, just rubbed me the wrong way). I DO have a short piece I usually do from memory -- but since it's an abcdarium of urban images, after I do it, most folks look at me as if I've completely lost my mind....

  3. Hey Mendi, it's cool to hear that someone else younger than me had similar experiences; I didn't mention it, but in Latin we had to memorize the opening to the Aeneid, which I still remember: "Arma virumque cano, qui primus ab oris Troaie," and then its translation! I love how you mention having to memorize the poems because you don't have paper with you, or if they become songs; the first really was integral to the oral tradition, isn't it, and the latter points to what makes poetry memorable, its musical and imagistic resources. Are you going to post any of your poems on Sweat? I hope so! I think I'll follow your example, and memorize poems with my students as well.

    Reggie, so many of Roethke's poems are so memorable. I haven't looked at them at a while, though, but "My Papa's Waltz" was in the kitty of poems we had to know. I didn't remember the grumbling about Michael's assignment, but that may be because my memory itself focused on our process of trying to commit those poems to something longer than short-term memory--did I groan as well? LOL (I do recall walking around out back in Esopus, repeating the lines over and over....)

    So can you "spit" one of your longer ones, like "Walking Around"? The next time I see you read, I'm going to call out for you to "spit one"!

  4. Reading comments on your blog again, John. I had to memorize the opening to the Aeneid in Latin, too! But I only ever remember "Of arms and a man I sing / Arma virumque cano". And because my Latin teacher was also the Senior English prof, she had us memorize the first words of Zora Neal e Hurston's *Their Eyes Were Watching God* -- an afterthought added to the curriculum after black students in my class spoke up about what we weren't being taught. Hurston's was the last full length work of my high school education, the first and only full length work we were all required to read by a person of color or a woman. The words? "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board." and then a few paragraphs later, after you think the man is neutral, you get, "Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget." Because those words have stayed with me so I have written in response over the years. My favorite response is an unpublished triptych entitled "Now, Women".