poetry memorization

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Welp, I did it. At long, long last…I have completely memorized the class text: Dr. Suess’s ABC. How do I know this? Because I rattled it off to a very cranky eleven-month-old in the car this morning, on our way to pick up her dad from the auto repair shop, where he’d just dropped off the other car. I was a little stunned that I’d got the whole thing, though, the pictures and the rhyming really helps a lot.

It made me pause, though, to reflect on the things I’ve committed to memory. Sort of an out-of-fashion skill these days–numbers are all on our phones, events are all digitally photographed and posted online. Memorization is especially out of favor in academia–with good reason, too. Why bother using valuable brain space to memorize when you can look something up and save that space for critical thinking? Analysis? Is poetry memorization a waste of time? Sometimes, when I glance over my “still-to-read” part of my QE list, I wonder…

Yet, I cannot shed the habit of committing bits of text, usually a poem, or now the odd, well-worn children’s book, to memory. I suppose I come by it honestly: Poppa, my dad’s dad, was always puttering about the yard or house, muttering poetry under his breath. He favored nonsense poems, but also could recite “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin” on command–and I frequently commanded it as a child. When Poppa passed away, I claimed his well-worn poetry anthology for my own, and used it as my primary reference for my 11th grade poetry journal.

While my mom is the queen of the appropriate song lyric, my dad has always loved, and recited to me, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So much so that excerpts of that poem were the first poetry I committed to memory myself. Along with his own poems, my husband would recite “The Litany Against Fear,” from his favorite book, Dune, to me when we were dating.

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I can mark my life by the poetry I was remembering at the time. Emily Dickenson’s “That I did always love,” for my wedding. In the early mornings and late nights of nursing my newborn baby, I went over the first stanza of Endymion and this e.e. cummings poem to pass the time. When I first started teaching, I taught, and learned Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” because, of course. Classic hymns or psalms are also poetry that have proven useful in key moments. The act of memorizing is like a slow absorption, or a dissolving. You work over the words until they break down and enter your porous brain, and become part of you.

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These days, I am committing Dr. Suess and his crew to memory. I’m not sad about it, either. So much children’s literature is tremendously satisfying and soul-filling in its silly, poignant way. I’m also working on getting all of this poem into my being–a sort of antidote for that post-baby body “shmeh” feeling, or just anything that might be getting me down–studying, scheduling, bill-paying, what-have-you.

I’ll always encourage my students in this endeavor–and some day, if I ever get to teach a poetry course, they’ll be assigned to it. Because it is so personally fulfilling, I wonder, sometimes, if it would be appropriate in a composition classroom? I suppose that depends very much on how one conceptualizes “composition” and “the classroom.” hm…

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