Friday, April 10, 2009

On memorizing poetry

Jim Holt in the New York Times on memorizing poetry:

A few lucky types seem to memorize great swaths of poetry without even trying. [...]

For the rest of us, the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I've already got. At the moment, I'm 22 lines into Tennyson's "Ulysses," with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I'll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.

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. Between the covers of any decent anthology you have an entire sea to swim in. If you don't have one left over from your college days, any good bookstore, new or used, will offer an embarrassment of choices for a few bucks — Oxford, Penguin, Norton, etc. [...]

The grandest claim for memorizing poetry is made by Clive James, himself a formidable repository of memorized verse. In his book "Cultural Amnesia," James declares that "the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart." A noble sentiment. I just wish that James had given us some reason for thinking it was true.

I don't have one myself, but I hope that I have at least dispelled three myths.

Myth No. 1: Poetry is painful to memorize. It is not at all painful. Just do a line or two a day.

Myth No. 2: There isn't enough room in your memory to store a lot of poetry. Bad analogy. Memory is a muscle, not a quart jar.

Myth No. 3: Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.

The rest of this article can be read here.