I don’t have a lot of regrets, but I have a few. I regret not learning a second language to the point where I can converse. I regret not learning to swim, and I regret giving up the violin. (Though my violin teacher might have thought that was the right decision.)
And I regret not memorizing more poetry. But that is a regret I can do something about, right now. And I intend to.
I’ve been thinking about this since last fall, when a friend mentioned in passing that he had taken to reciting the poetry of Robert Frost while on his daily walk. When he said this, the poems that I had been required to memorize as a teenager — all while I was in junior high, all under the same English teacher — came rushing back into my brain.
“Blue Girls,” by John Crowe Ransom. The prologue to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The opening lines of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” — not the translated version, but the wonderful Middle English version with “shoures soote” and “swich licór.” So fun to recite with passion and verve, mystifying your friends!
There are poems I memorized on my own, too: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which perhaps everyone has memorized. “Dogs and Weather,” by Winifred Welles, which I loved as a very young girl, long before I had a dog of my own. And so many others — entertaining poems, rhyming poems, not necessarily important poems but poems that got stuck in my brain almost in spite of myself. (Nursery rhymes, for instance.) (And why have rhymes in the nursery? Hmmm.)
What is the benefit in memorizing poetry? Is there one? Is a benefit necessary?
For me, there is the pure pleasure of running through a poem in full, in my head, when I am away from a screen or a book. Or having a poem, or a few lines of a poem, pop into my head for no apparent reason — because something in life brings to mind those words. Or maybe just for the pleasure of the language, the entirely new way of looking at the world.
In an essay in the New Yorker some years ago, poet and novelist Brad Leithauser wrote of memorizing, “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.”
And he quotes scholar Catherine Robson: “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.”
If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith talked about this in November when she was in town for Talking Volumes. You don’t just memorize because of the rhythm and the rhyme, Smith said, but because of the meaning, which might change for you as you grow older and discover that different lines resonate for you.
The meaning of “Blue Girls” certainly changed for me as I grew older. When I learned the poem in seventh grade, the line “Go listen to your teachers, old and contrary, without believing a word” was the one that resonated (and made me snicker). But now I am more interested in the lines about the transience of beauty and about growing old.
What about you? Were you taught to memorize poems in school? Which ones? And do teachers still require this?
Which poems come to mind as you go about your life?
Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name and city, and I’ll use your thoughts in a future column soon.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. Email: email@example.com. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.