Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Another cheap pleasure

A good note about why memorizing poetry is better than reading it aloud and better than having it on an iPod.

"The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.

That’s my case for learning poetry by heart. It’s all about pleasure. And it’s a cheap pleasure."

Discussions - 9 Comments

I think a fund should be established for memorizing poetry/essays/books. A $2000(for example) competition/prize awarded to the man or woman who can (for example) memorize the greatest part of Churchill's essay: "Consistency in Politics"...Following in the ways of Mark Twain I think an author should take a pen name, but also that he should to publicize his book offer such a cash incentive/competition for those who could best memorize is hoped that he could minimize the costs of such advertising by competing under his real name.

When I taught, I always required my students to memorize great speeches so that they could grow by recognizing, learning, and feeling the words and meter involved. To allow the import to sink into their very souls. Peter, as you say, it's mechanical at first, but the words then come alive as the person recites them, lending them deeper and deeper meaning the more often the words are repeated. I think it's the same with prayer. My children are learning to recite their prayers, and after learning the words, they are beginning to ask questions about them and what they mean. We learn the surface meaning - which is important - but then the rich theological import of each of the words and why they were fitly chosen.

Tony: Would you be so kind as to list the speeches that you have your students memorize? I'd like to start doing that with my kids. TIA.
Great thread, BTW, Peter! We were required to memorize poetry for 4 semesters in the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas U. in the 70s. I *still* turn to them as deep resources in light and/or critical moments..."O Star, the fairest one in sight..."

Gosh, Gary, all the big ones. You can always start with excerpts. Henry V, Patrick Henry, Churchill, Pericles' Funeral Oration, Lincoln, the Declaration, etc. And, just reading them aloud in class with a rythmic cadence and proper tone always kept the students' attention rapt, especially when they understood the historical and moral frameworks of the speech. Many of the speeches above were issued in times of dire need when the moral imperative of self-government and even civilization hung by a thread. If the children don't understand that, they need mouth-to-mouth to get their hearts and souls jump-started.

When my kids attended Christian school the best thing about the place was that the kids were required to memorize weekly Bible verses and, as they got older, this eventually meant long passages. Some teachers were very inventive (and musically gifted) about this and would have the children set the verses to song. The school also had a wonderful program every spring when they required the kids to memorize a bible verse, a poem and (when the kids were in Jr. High) a patriotic speech. They had a competition every spring for this and the winners would move on to a larger speech meet with competitors from the surrounding Christian/Catholic schools. The students, even at a very young age, developed remarkable composure and confidence--to say nothing of an ear for the language. Some students, naturally, excelled at this. Others, of course, were terrified. But all of them profited from the experience. You could see that the kids who were just terrible in one year had progressed to the point of tolerable ease in the following year. They all progressed and gathered confidence. I really wish we had had something like this when I was a kid but, beyond memorizing the prepositions in grammar class (which I can still recite!) I don't think we ever had to do anything like this in the 70s. Seeing this reminds me that I need to go speak to the principal of our current school and suggest that we begin to participate in this competition. Thanks for the ammunition!

As a former teacher, I can only believe that these students will master logic, oratory, and rhetoric, becoming the future generation of conservative, principled statesmen.

I really liked that essay, though I take issue with the idea that anyone can memorize as easily as Holt does. I have always had a terrible time memorizing anything, though whole passages of Shakespeare or those words I repeated to my kids will come unbidden and by surprise. Something triggers them, like a cue in a play, and they just take off. I am so impressed with people who can remember, at will. I really envy the idea of "a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in."

Yet, I wonder at anyone who can be bored by quiet moments. There is so much to think about, always.

Don't kids start life, memorizing our words and by learning nursery rhymes? Mine did, repeating along with my reading, those as well as poetry and their little stories from picture books, like Mister Dog, all things they learned by ear. Some remembered words better than others. They did have to memorize scripture, later, some of which they still remember. I never liked the idea of making memorization onerous. I wish I had thought to pay them for memorizing poems and other good things, like that guy's parents did in the essay. I may try that with my older granddaughter. I wonder what her price will be? I don't think a dime is incentive, anymore. One granddaughter is being raised on books and poems and recites all sorts of things beautifully. The other is being raised by TV and it breaks my heart. She has memorized things, too, and recites tham but thay are things without beauty or joy. Maybe paying her to embrace beauty is the answer and something her mother could understand. What price the Psalm 23, for example?

I was being slightly sarcastic, while embracing the concept, Kate. If you go to a baptist church or an assemblies of God church your granddaughters or Grandsons can memorize bible verses to advance in rank(Awanna's(sp?) or Royal Rangers) Those who are more catholic memorize more for beauty or route, as part of the service. The Bible says in Psalm's 119:11 "Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee(God)."

Americans used to memorize bible verses, but now it is more common to memorize rhymes, beats, rap.

It is possible that the gangta in aisle nine isn't really a thug, he just happened to memorize all of Tupac, Eminem and Jay-Z and is therefore commited pygmallion style, to jive with those who dig his street poetry.

In the Army I know that promotion often depends on memorizing the UCMJ, the soilders creed, the NCO creed, the army song, the FM's, the dash-10' memorization is about advancing in rank/pay.

Of course I knew a few bonehead NCO's who had memorized all the legalities and were essentially incompetent otherwise.

If you want a good battle buddy pick one who doesn't go for the pure memorization route, you don't want the "board babby" but the one who can shoot and use a wrench...albeit as pure ambition would have it the board babbies were never the pits even if they could be insufferable.

I actually am in complete agreement with Dr. Schramm and the author of this article. I have never taken a sociology class, that was more informative than pygmallion and Psalm's figure out the beats a person has memorized, you grasp the flow of his language, you know what sort of poetic real estate his mind wanders in and recurrs to in times of difficulty.

My son, who could memorize everything, poetry, prose, play dialogue, songs, whole musical scores (and it's a pity he can't sing) and, yes, even scripture, cannot seem to adequately memorize all of those military things vital for advancing in rank and pay. He's medical and knows your mandible from your maxilla, radius from ulna, among lots of other important things, as well as shooting, using wrenches, and pushing paper more effectively than most, which is really useful, so your judgment comforts me.

My kids did not last long at Awana. They were bored. There is The National Bible Bee, perhaps for those for whom Psalm 119:11 is not incentive enough.

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