OK, so it’s taken me unconscionably long to write more about ASECS. Sue me. I’ve been working with students and catching up since I got back. I’m a teacher, dammit, not a bricklayer!

Memorizing poetry is something I usually make my students do, in all kinds of classes. In Brit Lit I, I love pulling out that old chestnut: “the first eighteen lines of the Canterbury Tales–in Middle English! In my office by next Monday!” The students grumble, but then they do it and they end up loving it. To be able to recite those eighteen lines with some sensitivity to the nuances of your performance may not mean that you know everything about them*, but it’s a serious assignment. (*Like classical and medieval cosmology, allusions, British history, theology, etc.)

One of the highlights of ASECS this year was John Richetti‘s presidential address, which insisted on the need to recite poems aloud as a necessary step in the understanding of them. I couldn’t agree more. It’s quite depressing to ask someone to read a poem aloud, say, these lines–

Five Hours, (and who can do it less in?)
By haughty Celia spent in Dressing;
The Goddess from her Chamber issues,
Array’d in Lace, Brocades and Tissues.

and to listen while they plow straight ahead as though the punctuation marks aren’t there:

fivehoursandwhocandoitlessinbyhaughtyceliaspentindressingthe
goddessfromherchamberissuesarraydinlacebrocadesandtissues.

e.e. cummings wasn’t yet born when Swift wrote, after all. The parenthesis in the first line matters. The semicolon that breaks the thought into precise halves matters. They turn the lines from being capital-P Poetry into an intimate aside, a conversational slur on the mores of both Celia and Strephon. The speaker intimates that he knows better than either.

Now listen to Richetti’s lordly reading of those lines. Wonderful, eh? It’s a bit much to suggest that mere practice would help you capture the worldly hauteur that enlivens Richetti’s reading with a sense of the persona of the poem. That comes out of Richetti’s great scholarship and intimate familiarity with the possibilities of interpretation given the milieu of the poem. But even an amateur like myself can see that the way one reads the lines is tantamount to a literary interpretation as much as a performative one, no? It rewrites the text by refusing to acknowledge that the eighteenth-century took punctuation very seriously as a ma(r)ker of meaning: one rule suggested “beats” as the measure of pauses, from a one-beat pause for a comma to a six-beat pause for a period.

Jim Holt recommends the memorization of verse by inveighing against the following three myths in the NYT:


Myth No. 1: Poetry is painful to memorize. It is not at all painful. Just do a line or two a day.

Myth No. 2: There isn’t enough room in your memory to store a lot of poetry. Bad analogy. Memory is a muscle, not a quart jar.

Myth No. 3: Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.

And then there’s the following counter-method, which takes advantage of word-processing technology:

The trick that worked for me — and unlike Holt, a Baby Boomer, I wasn’t instructed to memorize poems in high school, and so had to rely on my own devices to figure out how to do it — is to actually type the lines out, two by two at a time, in a Word document. So:

The piers are pummeled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain

The piers are pummeled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain

It may take about ten repetitions before a couplet is committed to memory, but as you gain experience, they’ll come faster than that. (Pay attention to punctuation, too, as this will come in handy for rhythm later.) Each time you learn another set of lines, you retype the ones you already learned to put the whole lot of them together. By some weird hand-eye osmosis, this technique usually works, and once learned, it’s extraordinarily easy to retain a poem. (If you forget some of it, a brief glance over the text is all that’s required for a refresh.)

You may think that mechanically transcribing poems robs them of their musicality and thus defeats the whole point of knowing them by heart. You’re right; but the object at first is to learn them. Musicality comes upon successful recitation.

What Richetti, Holt, and Weiss all agree on is that it’s cool to furnish your mind with some verse. In fact, I’ll be reciting myself, on campus and in public, in a few days. But more on that later.

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