Friday, February 04, 2011

Memorizing Poetry

This post began life as the beginning of my latest “Minding Words” column for the WTLP Zine. It ended up being way too long, so I chopped out the column for Sage (which became simply “How to Memorize a Poem.” and forgot about the rest. But a recent wonderful discussion on Voice Alpha -- Read or Recite? -- and the arrival of the WTLP Zine in my inbox reminded me of it. I am fascinated by various ways of intervening in mind and memory, and a bit baffled by people who aren't interested in doing it. I have similar difficulty understanding people who don't want to try unfamiliar cuisines: even if it turns out you don't like them, they're so intriguing, so ramifyingly suggestive, that it's always worth the venture. Even -- especially? -- something repulsive is interesting.

I started memorizing poetry because I panicked. I was in graduate school, working towards a doctorate in English, my oral exams were only two months away, and I couldn't remember a damn thing. I'd been reading for hours and hours every day: Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, you name it. And I couldn't even remember what I'd read last night. I couldn't tell you the name of the poet or the title of the poem. I was doomed. The panel of professors would ask me a few questions, ascertain that I knew nothing, and sadly (for they were all kind people) flunk me. They'd have no choice.

It was time for desperate measures. I took half the time I had for reading and used it for memorizing instead. I put together a program of memorization for myself. I'd pick a poem, or a passage of ten or fifteen lines, and every day I'd say it over and over to myself. After a couple days I'd have it down pat, and I'd move on to memorize something else. But I'd keep coming back to what I'd memorized before. By the time my exams came, my memorization time was mostly spent saying over things I'd already memorized. I was determined that nothing I'd taken so much trouble to engrave on my mind was going to wear away before the exams. That was the whole idea.

I now know, of course, that it didn't matter. They would have passed me no matter what; the blankness of my mind was an imaginary condition, the quite predictable result of anxiously trying to respond to every imaginable question about every poem, story, or novel ever written in English, all at once. When faced with a perfectly ordinary question about, say, Pride and Prejudice, I muddled along with a perfectly acceptable answer. Only once did I get to show off my memorization. I was asked something about Yeats, and found myself saying lines from “Lapis Lazuli”:

. . . their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.”

So memorization is probably not a very good way of studying for exams, at least not for exams of that sort. (Although as a method of allaying test anxiety it's not bad.) But the real benefits of memorization only became clear to me gradually, over time. My relationship with the verse I memorized changed profoundly. The poetry I memorized remained clear as time went by, while the poetry I didn't became indistinct, or vanished altogether. I reached for it and it was there. It was the difference between a marriage and a one night stand.

They were not always happy marriages. Byron was glib but untrustworthy. Wordsworth wouldn't leave well enough alone. Shelley, for someone who insisted so often on clearness and transparency, was irritatingly vague and gauzy. Whitman didn't know when he'd worn out his welcome.

But some of the relationships became far deeper. I had never taken Christina Rossetti or S.T. Coleridge entirely seriously: they both had, on first acquaintance, irritating affectations. But the better I knew them the less that mattered, and they both drew me into regions of thought and imagination that my apparently more suitable spouses had never dreamed of.

Often the way people who don't memorize much (or at all) speak of memorization puzzles me. It seems that they think memorization freezes a portion of the brain, or freezes your response to a poem. It does neither. Memorized poetry does not become inert. It becomes more vivid and more active in your brain, not less; it argues and couples with levels of your consciousness that once-scanned poems will never even touch. It invades your dreams and your daydreams; it rises at all kinds of times, opportune and inopportune.

It's true that, like marriage, it can't be undone. It is -- again like marriage -- a rash commitment, whose consequences are unforseeable. Don't expect a memorized poem to behave itself. It won't.

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