My brother memorized the poem “Jabberwocky” when he was a teenager, and I thought that was so cool.
At the time could not think of anything to memorize other than “The Purple Cow,” so I decided to copy him. I memorized “Jabberwocky” with its Bandersnatch and the slithy toves and that vorpal blade. I thought I was so cool.
Not long ago I heard Neil Gaiman recite it, and I thought he was so cool.
So you see, poetry can be cool. It can be weird and funny and surprising. It can be serious, sad, and sobering.
Poetry, if we let it, can seep into us and change us with its funny, surprising, and serious ways of processing life and ideas.
My friends at Tweetspeak Poetry know this well. They invited people to join them in the challenge (and fun!) of memorizing poetry during the month of April. Sandra Heska King not only committed to memory “The Stolen Child,” which was the poem the Tweetspeak community tried to memorize together, but she also continued work on memorizing T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Yes, the whole thing.
Poetry for a Lifetime
I was chatting with my mom about Tweetspeak’s challenge and Sandra’s big memorization project, and all of sudden she launched into “Corinna’s Going a Maying” by Robert Herrick—partly because it was May 1st and partly because she’d slept in and likes the line “Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see.” Who doesn’t want to be a sweet-Slug-a-bed?
Then she continued with “Who is Sylvia? what is she?” from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shortly after that, “The Sugarplum Tree” by Eugene Field and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, “Although everyone knows that,” she said as if it were no big deal to recite it from beginning to end with barely a pause.
She memorized them all in college in the 1950s, and recited them for fun to my brother and me when we were kids, and revisited them randomly over the past few decades. In other words, she didn’t need a daily review to keep them locked inside. She memorized while she was young and carried them with her for a lifetime.
It’s in there. The rhythm, the rhyme, the vocabulary, the meaning.
Mom’s retention demonstrates the power of memorizing in our youth, whereas Sandra Heska King shows us we can take the challenge at any stage of life, even as an empty nester.
What Poem Might You Take to Heart?
Think about a poem you’d like to memorize. You might be surprised how the words and phrases sink into your mind and influence your work in unexpected, delightful ways.
In poetry, you’ll find freedom from some of the mechanics expected in prose, such as proper comma placement. In poetry, you’ll find fresh phrasings that throw your brain off its expected track and into novel ways of thinking and imagining. This can happen when you read a poem, but it works best when you take it to heart.
When my kids were young, we read a fair amount of poetry aloud and memorized a few, mostly cute children’s poems (“Mice” was a favorite). I worked on two Frost poems at the time, and I can still pull off “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with only a couple of prompts…although I guess that’s not such a big deal, according to my mom.
A high school student memorized “The Raven” in the writing class I taught a couple of years ago and won a speech competition with a creative interpretation of it. One of my daughters memorized “Over the Misty Mountains Cold” from The Hobbit and has entertained her college friends by reciting it beginning to end.
Why don’t we all memorize more poetry?
Fill Up on Poetry
An article entitled “A Year of Living Poetically” includes an excerpt from In Defense of Memorization, by Michael Knox Beran:
The student who memorizes poetry will internalize the rhythmic, beautiful patterns of the English language. These patterns then become part of the student’s language store, those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking…memorization stocks the language store with a whole new set of language patterns.
Let’s fill the wells we use in our writing, shall we? Let’s tap into language patterns we might not use in everyday chit-chat. Let’s see how it expands and enhances our work.
Is this something you’ve ever tried? I believe poetry memorization can serve as a playful, creative activity that will add energy, ideas, and allusions to the rest of our writing.
Tweetspeak’s dare lasted throughout April, when my life was consumed by responsibilities and I got distracted from their project. Now it’s May. National Poetry Month and the official dare have ended, but it’s never too late.
Commit a poem to memory and see where it takes the rest of your work. You can start small. I’m going to.
I’m going to start with an easy one that won’t take me long because I already know it pretty well: Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” It’ll be a small win.
What poem will you commit?
- The Purple Cow, by Gelett Burgess
- Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll
- Mice, by Rose Fyleman
- Corinna’s Going a Maying
- Introduction to Tweetspeak’s April Poetry Dare (“The Stolen Child”)
- Poetry Memorization Tips from Tweetspeak Poetry
- Mensa for Kids: “A Year of Living Poetically”
- Tell all the truth but tell it slant
- When You Don’t Know What to Say, Try Poetry (episode 77)