Why You Should Memorize Poetry

I’ll say it all in the first sentence, so if you don’t feel like reading the rest, you don’t have to: if you immerse your mind and imagination in beautiful sounds, words, images and ideas, your faculties will first imitate all that beauty, and then you’ll actually live that way. You become that with which you surround yourself, and as real poetry is full of those eternal three—truth , beauty and goodness—we ought to sink ourselves into it.

In her book The Harp and the Laurel Wreath, Laura Berquist writes, “We should foster in our children a love of the beautiful and true and a corresponding distaste for what is ugly and false” (8). When we are children, imitation of the beautiful or the ugly comes naturally. If we really want to love the beautiful, we need to begin by imitating the beautiful. This is where poetry comes in. “Poetry is one of the forms of the beautiful that is relatively accessible to children” (ibid). An appreciation for the patterns and sounds of beautiful words, and a knowledge of the way to put them together, becomes almost second nature to the minds steeped in poetry.

annie and kids

All of this helps us to understand why we need it in our formative childhood years. But what about when we’re older? There comes a time when, delightful as nursery rhymes and humorous children’s poems might be, they cease to push the intellect to its full potential. And yet, having been nurtured on poetic rhythms and lovely sounds, it would be devastating to leave them all behind (maybe devastating is too strong a word, but think how comforting the children’s books are that your parents read to you; to be eternally deprived of them would be devastating). Luckily for us older people, poets did not stop at the level of Mother Goose compositions. We have our A. A. Milnes and Lewis Carrolls, but we also have poets like Yeats and John Donne. If you’ve been lucky enough to have been encouraged, cajoled, and sometimes forced to memorize poetry as a young child, you will have gained the tools of poetic comprehension in your study of those simple rhymes, and you can begin to access the higher and complex truths found in more advanced poetry.

This accession does not always happen right away. In the same way that you might sing a song twenty times before you realize what the lyrics mean, you can say a poem over and over again, delighted with the mere sounds of it, and suddenly, the music of the words begins to mean something beautiful and real and deep. Poetry is a form of music, and it acts on and effects the imagination and emotions the same way that music can and does. It draws us in superficially at first, and later we can move onto an appreciation of its deeper meanings. In more advanced poetry, those real meanings are philosophical and even theological questions and answers. When we begin to ask those questions, as all men should and must, what better way to start than with the music of poetry? For we happy few (name that play!), it will be a music to which our ears have become accustomed, in which our hearts have long delighted, and our minds have learned to love.

So, if you don’t have any poems committed to memory, open a book and learn one. Now. Good ones that aren’t too long: When You Are Old, by W.B. Yeats; Woman’s Constancy, by John Donne; Richard Cory, by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Also, as proof of what I said in the last paragraph, I realized something new when I re-read Richard Cory ten minutes ago. It happens! It really does! And if you don’t feel like memorizing a whole poem, choose a stanza of a long one that you like. Keats’ Odes have some intensely powerful passages. I’m thinking particularly of the sixth stanza of Ode to a Nightingale. Yeats’ Prayer for my Daughter (stanzas 3-4) and also his Adam’s Curse (aching sadness in that one) are also worth several read-throughs. Finally, let’s not forget T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. If you want to memorize all of that one, I’ll be mightily impressed. Now, you have your assignment. Onward!

Comments

  1. Miguel says

    Delightful! But in addition to your suggestions for adults, I’m really interested in hearing what you might suggest for kids. What poetry for kids (especially little kids, say 3 to 6 years old) do you think both measures up to the standard of beauty and is accessible enough for them? And, in addition to what specific *poems*, do you recommend any specific *books* one can buy where it is found. I say that because, for example, I find the rhymes of Hillaire Belloc delightful, but I don’t know of any books where one can get them all. Anyway, what would be your recommendations beyond Mother Goose? Can you give us, say, a top ten?

    • says

      Hope you don’t mind my commenting on your request for a rec here, Miguel. We do a lot of memory work and use The Harp and the Laurel Wreath, by Laura Berquist. I highly recommend it. Not only does it meet the gold standard for beauty, but it provides accessibility by presenting poetry selections according to the developmental gifts at each age. I have used it for years with my son and will continue right on through high school. We also love A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. They are beautiful, and simple, but deeply connected with the mind, life, and imagination of a child.

      • says

        Oh! And also Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young, both collections of poems by A.A. Milne.

        ando forgive my overlapped comment with Ellen’s — my screen had not refreshed and I didn’t see it. The Harp and The Laurel Wreath is very much still in print! :)

  2. CJ Wolfe says

    “we happy few”? Henry V, St. Crispin’s day speech. I was forced to commit it to memory by my high school English teacher. Thanks, teacher!

  3. says

    Lovely article and a shared passion. Not to mention memorizing sacred scripture; truth, beauty, goodness. Amen. But toward your point:

    “So while the parish priest at her bedside
    Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
    And some were responding and some were crying
    I remembered her head bent towards my head,
    Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives —
    Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”

    – Seamus Heany, from “Clearances, iii.”

  4. Miguel says

    OK, I did my job and now can recite When You Are Old. But I still haven’t gotten Mrs. Turner’s thoughts on books with great poems for kids. Please? It would be so useful, and if that happens to be you in the picture, you certainly seem to be enjoying your reading to them. Or can it be that you read them Yeats? :)

  5. says

    Thank you all so much for your kind comments (and CJ Wolfe, well done).

    Miguel, as long as you’re on a roll “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” is about the same length as “When You Are Old” and is one of my all time favorites.

    I’m not sure if I could give you a “top ten” list, but here are some recommendations. First, get your kids into tongue twisters. They’re silly and fun, and it gets them thinking about minute distinctions in sounds. Also, The Harp and the Laurel Wreath is a really fantastic resource; it starts with poems for very young children, and gradually works up to the more complex ones that kids in their late teens can appreciate. Each poem or group of poems comes with questions to help the readers understand what’s going on, and there are explanatory paragraphs here and there outlining poetic forms and rules etc. It might be out of print (?) but it’s well worth what money you might spend on it; your kids can grow up with it.

    My parents kept us well-supplied with the “What Your First/Second/Third etc Grader Needs to Know” books. They were where I first read “Casey at the Bat” and “The Jabberwocky” (another great one for getting kids excited about sounds).

    Particular poets for kids? Shel Silverstein (my students LOVED him), Christina Rossetti, Ogden Nash, some Richard Wilbur, and some Robert Frost. Edgar Allen Poe, though he is a little creepy sometimes, can also be a great guy to get them started on. His poetry is all accessible and colorful, and he has such a palpable, dependable, and steady rhythm that he’s easy to memorize.

    And finally, back to poems for the very young. . . Each Peach Pear Plum is a board book that all of my siblings and I had memorized. It was lots of fun and very embarrassing when our parents had us recite it en masse for the cousins.

    I hope you find that helpful! (ps – The picture is of my older sister and her kids; I will pass along your compliments. I will try to read Yeats to them next time I visit, but I can’t guarantee it will be a success :) )

  6. says

    Wonderful post, Ellen. We have lost something great, I think, in our educational environment with the passing of not only studying and reading poetry, but committing it to memory. I grew up with my grandfather reciting lines from Hamlet and Tennyson and others that he had learned as a boy. My grandmother recited one of Milne’s bedtime poems to us when we said our prayers at night. I regret to say that, until university, I had never been asked to memorize a poem. But doing so then was a revelation and a gift. I’m blessed with the opportunity of sharing this with my young son, who I home school. Right now he is doing a masterful job of memorizing the St. Crispin’s speech from Henry V! Excellent poetry, learned by heart, accompanies one along life’s path, much like Scripture passages — they surface in dark and happy times, giving much food for thought and always re-connecting us to Beauty and Truth. Thanks for reminding us all of this gift.

  7. Ann Turner says

    I will always remember my college professor, Michael Platt telling us we had to memorize poetry because life if filled with waiting: the grocery store, the dmv, the doctor’s office. Rather than being at the mercy of what conversation you are surrounded with or, heaven forbid, the tabloids, bring to mind something beautiful you have memorized and think about that. Your life will be richer.

  8. Anne Triolo says

    There is an amazing scene in the biography Unbroken, about American POWs in Japan doing forced labor. They are unloading barges of salt and one of them knows many Sonnets by heart and he says them aloud as they work. So there they are all, starving, working, abused, pondering the words of Shakespeare!

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