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On Memorizing Poems

By Sina Queyras

Earlier this month I was asked to judge the Quebec semi-finals in the Poetry In Voice competition the Griffins of The Griffin Prize set up to support the reading and recitation of poetry in high schools.

That same week my classes ended and as usual, at least one of my classes had been given the task of memorizing poems, their own, and/or canonical poems. This year it was an Introduction to Creative Process class that I asked to memorize verse. Someone performed Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in a surprisingly fresh way. Another dug into Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the Annie John poems, and made it seem to have been written last week in Montreal, convincingly, from the student’s own experience.

There were a few poems I had not heard before, and a few students were brave enough to take notes on the spot and re-perform their poems. I do push my students. But then they respond, and then they excel, and then they feel great, and we all (and in this case 80 students), learn something. I am always pleasantly surprised to discover how quickly one can improve and/or reinterpret a poem once one has it memorized. One grad class all memorized Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and over several weeks offered fresh readings of the same poem. Very instructive. Someone always memorizes something from Christian Bok’s Eunoia, and I would love to hear someone do a bit from Goldsmith’s Fidget, or a bit of Juliana Spahr, or Rae Armantrout….

As for the high school students and the Griffins? There were the usuals—“Jabberwocky,” “Captain, My Captain,” but also a few brave choices: someone did Erin Moure’s “Homage to the Mineral of the Onion,” and absolutely nailed it, another did an Emily Dickinson. Those who won went on to the semifinals in Toronto last week. The winner was an Ontario student so I didn’t see him or her perform. Among the things they win (aside from ingesting the poems for life) is money for their high school library to buy poetry books.

The Griffins are huge poetry supporters. They show up at these readings and support students. (And they show up with flair: the flight was bumpy, Scott Griffin said upon arrival, and then I realized he had flown himself and his wife from Toronto.) They support poetry. Elegantly. It’s very impressive.

And part of why they do this is they understand how powerful it is to have poetry inside of one. How one is never alone once one has ingested a poet, or a poem. Call it up and it’s there, in your mind. Call it up and speak it and you bring poetry to life for people. It’s a powerful, powerful trick.

So, to those who teach, if you don’t make your students memorize poems, try it.  The transformation will astound you.

Oh, and if you aren’t sure how to go about memorizing or teaching the memorization of poetry, Poetry In Voice has a website full of tips.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 by Sina Queyras.