June 14, 2012

Reasons to memorize a whatchamacallit


Poetry out loud

As reported earlier on MobyLives, British education secretary, Michael Gove, has brought forward a new national  curriculum—one that includes the mandatory learning of a foreign language as early as seven years old.

Along with foreign language skill, his proposed curriculum also emphasizes the traditional language skills of grammar and spelling. And poetry. Yes, poetry. According to this report in the Guardian, “Children as young as five will be expected to learn and recite poetry by heart…”

The report continues:

…the study of poetry will become an important part of the subject at primary school level.

From Year 1, at the age of five, children will be read poems by their teacher as well as starting to learn simple poems by heart and practise recitals.

The programme of study for Year 2 will state that pupils should continue “to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart and recite some of these, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear”.

There is something heartening about England, the cradle of the English language, inculcating an appreciation of that language in the very young. Here in the States, the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest gives the idea that peculiar American twist — by making it competitive.

Well, different strokes for different folks. There are, in any event, no end of studies endorsing the cultivation of memory as a tool for more general learning. But also, poetry and memorizing poetry, can offer ballast against the chronic distraction of our technological lives.

As Alexander Nazaryan writes in a lovely consideration of the issue in his column over at the NY Daily News:

I used to teach 9th grade English at a good school in a bad part of Brooklyn. All of my students were required to memorize 10-15 lines of The Odyssey and The Iliad. So much of their days were spent updating statuses, texting, tweeting, their attention pulled apart as if by medieval torture. But in those lessons on memory, they slowed down. Everything else stopped. It was only them and Homer, locked in ancient battle. Though some of them complained, most would privately admit it was one of the most rewarding things we did all year.

Memory is not only possession, but insulation, an armament against boredom, privation, suffering: I always think of some Russian dissident, reciting Pushkin to himself as he freezes in a Siberian Gulag. Once you have a poem, you may recall it as often as you wish. The genie will always replenish.

Somewhat less dramatically, I once had a dreadful job working for an immigration services agency in lower Manhattan. I was given an office without windows and nothing to do. I remember only that I routinely had fill out something called a “salmon file,” so named for the color of the paper on which it was printed. I found the term vaguely revolting — and still do.

With a frozen tundra of hours before me, I would close the door (it is still the only office I have ever had) and memorize poetry: Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hopkins, Millay and Pound. My walls were blank, my day was nothingness. The only exit was through a poem.

That is not to suggest that we should spend our days memorizing verse — or that rote memory should be the goal of education. But memory should be one of its goals, as the English are right to suggest….

As someone who has recited Sir Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” aloud to stay awake while driving the overnight shift as friends lay conked out in the backseat, I think Narayan has got a point. Those three poems are my whole repertoire, but they got us to the Black Hills of South Dakota without an accident.

Which is just to say that poetry has many uses—many of which we can never anticipate. Perhaps that’s a good definition of a worthwhile education: It prepares you for life, something one can never be prepared for.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.