Carnival of Children's Lit, March '09
2009 Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award

A Case for Memorizing Poetry

I don't even remember the last time I learned a poem by heart, but this piece in the New York Times Book Review caught my attention. Jim Holt has memorized a lot of poetry. "It’s all about pleasure. And it’s a cheap pleasure," he writes.

One should be skeptical, though, of some of the alleged advantages cited by champions of poetry memorization. “I wonder if anyone who has memorized a lot of poetry . . . can fail to write coherent sentences and paragraphs,” Robert Pinsky once said. Well, responded David Bromwich, just take a look at the autobiography of Marlon Brando, who memorized heaps of Shakespeare.

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Susan: Thanks so much for linking to that article - I loved it (and I'll be quoteskimming from it next Sunday).

You're welcome, Kelly. I liked it, too, and enjoyed Holt's humor.

Thanks for the link. I set up a similar challenge for myself a number of years ago. I was going to memorize 100 poems. I think I got to about four, but this makes me want to go back to it. I would love to declaim at the drop of a hat. ;)

Sounds like a fun challenge.... I think I'll give it a try, but I may start with children's poetry to impress my students (Shel Silverstein comes to mind).

Very funny about Brando! My grandmother memorized poems--there was one that started out, "Little daughter doing dishes, think of water, think of fishes..." And hey--I just gave you a Proximidade Award over at my site. Thanks for all your posts!

Hello Chicken Spaghetti,
I enjoyed reading the NYTimes article. I have been memorizing poetry for about ten years now. It all started when I began teaching English to primary school students at the French lycée in DC. Memorizing poetry (in French) is part of what they do (!), so I was able to easily carry that discipline over to the English class. As they memorized their monthly poem, I too memorized the same poems, and was surprised at how utterly empowered it made me feel. From that point on, I began to learn poems on my own on a regular basis. There is something absolutely wonderful about being able to declaim beautifully put-together words.

Thanks for the link. You may have inspired my next blogpost!

Bonny, you're four ahead of me! I like the idea, too.

Kate, I want to try, too. I think my son knows some of those beloved Shel S. poems by heart--without even trying.

Kate C., that is too kind of you! Thank you. I am honored.

Jane, I like that idea of memorizing being empowering. You're quite welcome for the link.

What an interesting article. I haven't thought about memorizing poetry since, um high school when I had to memorize a bit of Shakespeare.

Reading this article though reminded me, when I was learning Spanish I met a woman from Puerto Rico who spoke beautiful Spanish. She wasn't the first Puerto Rican I had spoken with, nor the last. At the time I was just learning to speak Spanish, but I told how much I liked her accent and the way she spoke. She replied by saying her father had been a professor of literature and made them memorize poems and/or read plays out loud at the dinner table every night. All her siblings spoke like that. Gives you something to think about.

Definitely, Cari. I have a friend whose family used to read Shakespeare at dinner, too. I was intrigued to hear about it.

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