Claiming the Poem

I’m running a few weeks behind on my Times Book Review reading, but here’s a piece by Jim Holt from the April 5th edition that rang true. Holt does a compelling job of advocating for memorizing poetry. Imagine that. At a time when so many poems can be accessed online, Holt makes the claim—and I agree with him—that there is no replacement for committing a poem to memory. That’s when you really claim it.

Not that I’m good at this. I have a few favorites from my younger years that I still carry around inside, like The Idea of Order at Key West, The Snowman and The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens, and Sailing to Byzantium and the Lake Isle of Inisfree by Yeats. I have tried to add others but they do not log in as easily as they did when I was 17. Frustrating but true.

But I know the difference in the way a poem feels when it is coming from memory versus reading from a page.

Paintings don’t get memorized the same way as a poem. My experience has been that you can look at a piece of art for hours and still find surprises, as if it refuses to be captured completely. That furtive quality reminds me of Winnicott’s description of artists –- “continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.”

But a poem allows itself to take up residence in the interior landscape, complete and whole. And the mystery deepens by the knowing.

A few excerpts from the article by Holt:

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.


Are there cognitive benefits? I sometimes feel that my mnemonic horsepower is increasing, but that’s probably an illusion. “Memorizing poetry does seem to make people a bit better at memorizing poetry,” Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, “but there’s no evidence that the skill carries over to other tasks.”

Nor, as I have found, will memorizing poetry make you more popular. Rather the reverse. No one wants to hear you declaim it. Almost no one, anyway. I do have one friend, a Wall Street bond-trader, who can’t get enough of my recitations. He takes me to the Grand Havana Cigar Club, high above Midtown Manhattan, and sits rapt as I intone, “The unpurged images of day recede. . . .” He calls to one of the stunningly pretty waitresses. “Come over here and listen to my friend recite this Yeats poem.” Oh dear.

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.

3 Replies to “Claiming the Poem”

  1. I was given an IPod as a gift and have yet to figure out how to use it. I also just like to walk around in my own head. The idea of memorizing poetry instead of an IPod is wonderful. I plan to start today. Just deciding on the poem will be fun.

  2. Now that I’ve looked around, Deb,
    I’m afraid that I’m outta my league here.

    Does this address the question of memorizing one’s own poetry?
    I cannot even claim to be able to do that. Well, one or two, maybe.
    But they’re old, and not in any danger of further editing.

    I do not own an IPod or a cell phone. So there!
    Nor do I need a line or two of the good stuff every day.

    If I could remember my phone number, I’d probably call myself.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: