Saturday, September 19, 2009


I wanted to pull this comment up from down there, two or three posts ago, because it's wonderful, and it asks for help from readers of mole. This was from Julie Martin:

I need to return to this post, but was struck by your reference to a time when even the second-rate educators imbued children with the habit of learning poems by heart. To have immediate access to amazing language, which then strikes a prompt chord with one's listeners: transformative.

I believe that memorization is life-altering even when the poetry learned is second-rate. My grandmother's most quoted lines, for example, apparently traced to Evangeline. (Okay: perhaps a Longfellow exception.) I also hate the disappearance of quoted aphorisms, another perfect, frozen literary confection -- the saved freezer snowballs that you can throw in July.

Of course, the loss of the best literary expressions is but one aspect of the bathtub draining of common background knowledge. See, e.g., the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs survey finding that 77 percent of OK high school students could not name the first U.S. President. People yearn for elevated language and music: how maddening to see starvation in a world of plenty.

To wander around with unfurnished heads is analogous to reinventing the first crude wheel every day. Or like the Olmec and successors, inventing the wheel only to use it exclusively on toys for 2000 years.

Now I'm again fired up to have my after-school kids memorize. I can't compel and I loathe contests, so any ideas from Mole readers on what might incent? We presently post a QOTD and POTD, but they are not carried out the door in any heads.

Me (Dale) again: I agree about memorization. I tend to harp on it here. For one thing, until you've tried to memorize, the virtues of poets like Longfellow -- and he does have virtues -- may be hard to see. If you don't memorize old poetry, poetry that was written in order to be memorized, you simply fail to get one of its main functions. When I first read Shakespeare, on my own, at age sixteen, with no guidance, I found it very mysterious because I was really not very aware that it was meant to be staged. I puzzled over lines such as

-- "Bernardo?"
-- "He."

Of course, when you watch the play, this is not a mysterious exchange. The other guy can't see Bernardo in the dark, and wants to know who he is, and Shakespeare wants the audience to know his name, so he makes him answer to it. But I, knowing nothing of Shakespearian drama except that I was supposed to find it full of meaning, thought until my head ached about this little exchange, without being able to make much of it. When I finally got to see Shakespeare on the stage, years later, little lights popped on in my head all over the place.

When you memorize, similar things happen. The lights pop on. That's why the funny inversions of syntax, that's why the counting of syllables, that's why the archaic contractions and exclamations! Suddenly you realize that all this stuff -- which you thought of as posturing and affectation and obsessive ornamentation -- was all done for your benefit. It's to make it easier to remember. You'll never look at old poetry in the same way again.

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