Monday, March 15, 2010

Memorizing poems

Cathy Davidson has a funny post up about terrible "thumping" poetry she had to memorize in grade school. I, too, had to memorize terrible poems in grade school. Yes, there was Longfellow! Unlike Cathy, though, I don't remember those poems anymore. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is no longer really in my system.

But I've recently been thinking about the poems that I have memorized on purpose. Memorizing something is a way of living with it, and there were poems I wanted to have on hand. I memorized Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat" in elementary school because a friend knew it -- her mom had taught it to her -- and I thought it was funny, and I liked those repetitions: "the moon, the moon." I still remember it. Quite honestly, it comes in very handy in those situations in which a fussy baby gets thrust at you, and I regret that I never fully mastered "The Quangle Wangle's Hat."

There are other poems that I memorized later. In college I read "After great pain a formal feeling comes" for the first time, found it brilliant, memorized it, and can recite it to this day. I memorized a few more Dickinson poems for my qualifying exam (lo these many years ago), and if my life depended on it I could probably squeeze them out, but it's "After great pain" that sticks. I must have memorized "A slumber did my spirit seal" in college too. Of course it's so short there's almost nothing to memorize, like "In a Station of the Metro" or "A White Hunter." Those I have too, but I don't count them.

More recently I memorized "Spring and Fall," in part because it was tricky to memorize:
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed

How's that for thumping?

Each person has different poems that sit in their pockets, on purpose or otherwise. It's funny that mine turn out to be by Edward Lear, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. What are yours?

Perhaps I'll try to memorize "The Pangolin." That's the sort of poem one needs to have on hand.


Paul said...

Of course, "The Snow Man" -- memorized for Lisa Ruddick's intro to poetry, fourth year, along with many other now forgotten poems. I still recite it silently several times a week when I need a bit of patience or calm. Liz once expressed surprise at this, thinking me more of a "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" man. Pshaw.

Otherwise, sometime in high school I learned the first couple bits of Prufrock, most of which remain.

But mostly I'm chiming in because this reminded me of something I'd long forgotten (or repressed): in fifth grade, the whole class paired up and learned and performed poems from Paul Fleischman's "Joyful Noise: Poems for two voices". Obviously, I got half of Book Lice . Reading it again, I can still hear my theatrical voice on "Roget's Thesaurus", and I shudder. Though I did develop rather a crush on my fellow louse.

skg said...

Verbatim memorization and I don't deal well because storing and retrieving more than one line at a time requires linearity, which I'm short on (as you know, Bob-person). I disappointed a quals examiner by being unable to spit out more than four lines of Piers Plowman; remembering single lines of importance is apparently not enough to sound like a serious literature major.

The one poem that has stuck entire, with everything in the correct order? "Jabberwocky," memorized for extra credit in the sixth grade.

Natalia said...

Ha! I was critiqued by someone who will remain nameless for not having memorized more of Tender Buttons for my qualifying exam. Memorization kind of flies in the face of the very concept of Tender Buttons, in my opinion, but Nameless Person (whom I adore, by the way) was having none of it.