Memorizing poetry

by Rob Tiller

The back page of last Sunday’s Times Book Review had an essay on the experience of memorizing poetry. My own experience is surprisingly similar to that of the author, Jim Holt.  He notes that he is in the process of memorizing Tennyson’s Ulysses.  I already did that one, three months ago.  

My own tastes and efforts overlap at several other points with Holt’s — certainly Shakespeare, Keats, and Yeats.  But he seems to have missed Blake and Wordsworth.  I was surprised he didn’t mention Frost and Stevens, which are important elements of my inner library .  On the other hand, he has a strong interest in Robert Browning, who so far hasn’t captured my attention.  No matter.  It’s nice to make contact, even indirectly, with a fellow poetry memorizer.  Most days, it’s a solitary activity.  

So why do it?  For Holt, “it’s all about pleasure.”  I agree, there’s pleasure in it, but that much is true of chocolate cake, and poetry is a more complicated experience.  Even finding a satisfactory definition of a poem is elusive.  Both Donne and Whitman write poetry, but their aspirations, structures, and messages are very different.   It’s challenging to begin constructing a defense of this odd activity when it’s so difficult even to define it’s subject.

Nevertheless, it’s enriching.  The richness at times evokes the experience of music (rhythm, harmony, melody) and of memory.  It refocuses the senses, sometimes on internal sensations, sometimes on the wider world of nature and of human constructions.  Reading great poetry brings life to life.  

To really experience a great poem, it’s necessary to read it many times.  To experience it even more deeply, it should be memorized.  

I first tried memorizing a poem a couple of years ago primarily with the thought that my memory could use more exercise, which was true enough.  I continued with few more poems with the thought that it would be a nice resource to entertain myself if  ever I was trapped on a ski lift or an elevator.  I persisted as I discovered that I felt different and better merging my self with the incredible beauty of great poetry.

Sally mentioned last night how much she was enjoying studying French with the Rosetta Stone program and taking the PADI scuba course on line.  It’s really fun to learn something new, she said.  This is very true.  Exploring new things is almost by definition interesting.  So why focus on poetry?  No reason.  (Just feeling.)