A recent post of Annie's got me thinking: do educators still make it a habit of forcing students to recite poetry in the classroom, before the students' peers? (I had to memorize and recite a few poems in my day, my day being the not-exactly-distant-or-sepia-tinted 1990s.) Is there a pedagogically sturdy reason for requiring students to get some poetry by heart, or is this practice now considered cruel and unusual, like the use of red ink and dunce caps? In short, should students be made to memorize and recite poetry?

Originally Published: March 7th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. March 7, 2009
     Maggie May Ethridge

    In my high school honors English, we did learn a few poems, but poetry was definitely an after-thought,
    something beautiful but mostly mysterious and decidedly 'old' feeling. Were it not for the fact that I was already a voracious reader and had stumbled across poetry I loved, the little we were exposed to in school would never have moved me.

  2. March 8, 2009
     Justin Cook

    I have taught literature and writing to secondary students for 8 years now and have not required students to memorize a poem. The one time I was forced to do this myself it was the first 14 lines of the prologue to Canterbury Tales, a text I didn't enjoy at all, regardless of all the irreverent and bawdy humor. Even today I don't much like the poem, and feel that the opening lines to Eliot's "The Wasteland" speaks more about the cruelty of the poem to which it is alluding, a poem that I could hardly understand because at 18 I wasn't fluent in middle English.
    My teacher's poor text selection aside, today I appreciate Chaucer because I can situate him in the cannon. Still, I wouldn't dream of teaching him to teenagers and doubt I could muster even the slightest insinuation of joy for the text. I am, however, passionate about Shakespeare. I have taught Romeo and Juliet so many times that I "magically" memorized the prologues to both Act I and II, Romeo and Juliet's famed sonnet, and most of Mercutio's famous Queen Mab monologue. Students are always amazed when they look up during class and see that as they listen along I am not looking at the text. Inevitably it begs the question "How do you do that?"
    At first, of course, I lead them on. I want them to think I'm a genius, at least for a few minutes. I then talk about Homer and the bards of legend who would memorize whole epics, and I talk about Plato's theory of imagination and how memory works-- he in fact believed the written word made us lazy; imagine what he'd think about the internet! I then tell them to wait and see what happens, that the words might burrow into their brains "magically" as well. They're usually skeptical.
    The final assessment is a group presentation and students have to act out the major scenes in their assigned act (and then analyze it of course). They get to use notes, but most of them, after several rehearsals, have sections memorized. Iambic pentameter is so natural to the brain (and I teach at an international school in Japan, so I mean it's natural to every brain) that it just gets in there.
    And the best part is this: every year one or two kids give it a little extra effort and memorize a section on their own. I don't assign it. I don't insist. It wouldn't help anyway. And on through the years these kids grow, memorizing sections of Othello, of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and hopefully Hamlet when I teach it next year.
    So, should kids be asked to memorize poems? If it's done right it should be happening naturally. Still, I may require it of my seniors next year, just for fun.
    Bored English Teacher

  3. March 8, 2009
     Anna Evans

    When I audited two semesters of undergraduate poetry workshops at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (Fall 2004 and Spring 2005), teacher BJ Ward required exactly that of participants. Each week one of us had to memorize a poem by a contemporary/modern poet and give a five minute talk to the class on that person.
    I did Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" and Tony Hoagland's "Lucky", both of which I can still recite, at a pinch. A very valuable exercise. Some of the undergrads grumbled a bit, and some of them struggled with the assignment, but everyone did it. Of course, given that most of the permissible poems didn't have rhyme or meter (Plath's "Daddy" notwithstanding), the exercise was far more demanding than it would have been a hundred years ago. A free verse poem is infinitely harder to memorize than one with rhyme or meter as a mnemonic aid, which is perhaps one reason why the practice is less common now than it once was.

  4. March 8, 2009

    I was in elementary school in the 90's/noughts, and I remember at least two occasions of memorizing poetry for presentations to my class. (Being a showoff, a snob, and, essentially, a huge nerd, I naturally chose the absurdly long "Casey at the Bat" and "The Highwayman" - I think I could still attempt "Casey" if called upon, or if sufficiently inebriated.) As for your question, Jason, I would make the claim that memorization is a way to own a poem on a level slightly above that attained by simply reading it. Our brains are stuffed with all sorts of things; putting a poem on those cluttered shelves is a valuation of it - one that I, and I'm sure many readers of poetry, do instinctively. Though I have no fourth-grade class to show off for, I can easily recall lines if not whole poems of Eliot and Auden and Frost and Gilbert and Carruth and Siken and... I can quote poems that have added something real to my life as easily - more so, perhaps - than my own opinions, and that's a fact for which I'm grateful. But you asked, *should* such possession be encouraged or enforced in schools? I haven't the foggiest...
    Memorization, with the rise of the written and then printed word, is no longer a requisite for a literature's survival. (As it was for the Iliad & Odyssey, etc., etc.) I don't know how factual this is, but I have a professor who claims that Socrates, when presented with the novel concept of writing as an aid for remembrance, asserted that the opposite was true - "It will aid you only in forgetting." Today, if I want to back an argument on the frail nature of hope, I can easily google the lack of joy in Mudville; I don't need to have it memorized. Which isn't to say that memorization isn't a useful skill - it certainly is, in any arena, but it seems less vital to me than it once was. However, I would argue that recitation, the second part of the equation you put forth, is an ability as relevant as ever, as recent electoral & inaugural events have shown us (and having something memorized makes it much easier to recite it well). Whether poems, papers, or debates - students should certainly learn how to speak engagingly and convincingly; it's an asset in most fields, though perhaps one that is often learned outside of the classroom.

  5. March 8, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Derek Walcott is famous for requiring his students to memorize reams of poetry, and I believe Joseph Brodsky the same. I always require students to memorize and recite something during the semester-–they really appreciate it once it's done, since it does increase our engagement with a poem, as Mairead points out. At each Stonecoast MFA residency, we have a poetry recitation where faculty or students in all genres share poems they have by heart. In addition to everything else, it is a lot of fun! What a great topic of discussion, Jason.

  6. March 8, 2009

    Yes, it's a great practice. My students must memorize a poem--it can be their own or a poem they love. It's a powerful exercise, one I wish had been part of my childhood. It wasn't. Jorie Graham talked about this recently in her master class at Concordia, the power of the memorized poetry she learned growing up in Europe, how it gets into your system and lays a fabric forever. My father, though he was a working man's man, had canonical French poetry as a lifelong companion and I know it enriched his life. The few poems I memorized myself as a young woman still roll around pleasantly, words, meaning, but more importantly rhythm.
    On a practical note. My students, once they have memorized the poem, must come up with three ways of reading the poem. That opens up a whole other discussion.

  7. March 8, 2009
     Don Share

    We should talk more about the distinction between being made to memorize poems in a classroom or workshop and memorizing poems for the pleasure of it... quite different things, eh?

  8. March 8, 2009
     Michael Dietz

    I had Jesuit literature teachers in high school in the '70s who routinely required us to memorize (and recite) poems. I think they considered it a sort of general intellectual strengthening exercise. It became something of a habit with me, through college and grad school: I rarely made deliberate efforts to memorize a poem, but any extended work with one meant that I'd end up getting most or all of it (up to, say, a hundred lines or so) mostly by heart. And though I don't teach or do literary criticism any more, it's still a pleasure to have a stock of poems that I can repeat to myself at odd moments, whenever the mood comes around.
    Though I agree with Mairead that recitation itself is a worthy thing for students to get experience at (more and more, as opportunities for public speech expand in an age of ubiquitous digital media), in discussing memorization I think it's a bit of a red herring. Nor do notions of "ownership" or "engagement" go quite far enough. Maybe the best way to approach memorization is as a valuable (even irreplaceable) critical work, a practical form of Borgesian translation. That is, if we consider the poem as a possible narrative (or a set of narratives) of aesthetic choices, on the part of both the poet and the reader, then the process of memorization offers a unique way to inspect and evaluate those narratives. Memorizing a poem, I learn things about its structure, about the way it structures my attention (and my attention structures it), that are really only accessible as I attend to how and where my memory succeeds with the poem, where it struggles or even fails.
    I can imagine a kind of intimate criticism that would primarily be a detailed accounting of the work of memory in re-authoring the text. I've never tried writing it myself, and maybe too much of the process would be too inchoate for such a thing to work, finally. Even at its most inchoate, though, I can't think of any better or deeper way of thinking yourself into a poem than by memorizing it.

  9. March 8, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    Anything to do with poetry and punishment is not a good thing...poetry and pleasure, a very good thing. But as Mairead points out both by her post and by her presence as a poet and reader, memorizing poems is empowering.

  10. March 8, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    But yes, to clarify, I am talking about university students. Poets. Though I would love to see this happen everywhere!

  11. March 8, 2009
     thomas brady

    I wonder how popular the NOVEL would be if one HAD to speak it outloud, or listen to it, in order to experience it?
    Genres similar to poetry, Hollywood FILM and Top 40 MUSIC, are experienced this way: outloud. We hear them, and they are immensely popular.
    The novel features a length and a simplicity of medium (marks on a page) which prevents it from being experienced as we do film and recorded music: outloud.
    But since we can read silently to ourselves, we can experience a novel's complexity of incident and design in a highly efficient manner, almost as if we were dreaming a large and involved dream at a frantic pace (as readers we take this 'frantic pace' for granted) and not only that, we can slow down our reading when we wish, and thus enjoy at a slow pace segments which happen to vividly interest us, thus creating the illusion that we are 'in' a world that we can stop and inspect. Any self-adusting temporal mechanism within a temporal medium will tend to create a sense of the spacial in that medium, and thus temporal modes are more than just temporal for us.
    In the current state of how we experience genres, then, poetry loses out significantly, since it is mostly experienced in the same way the novel is: it is perused silently.
    And yet, whereas reading silently significantly aids the novel (since the novel largely and habitually depends on silent reading) it is NOT necessary to experience the shorter and more concentrated form of the POEM in this manner, which, on the other hand, is losing out to FILM and MUSIC, by being mute and dumb compared to these arts.
    These remarks are only aimed at poetry's popularity; if these rather mundane observations are so true as to escape our conscious attention, the phenomena described may be all the more significant for that reason.
    I have not mentioned slam and poetry readings. These are actually quite peripheral in terms of popularity, however, since POETRY still competes with the NOVEL in terms of books sold, and with FILM and MUSIC in a similar manner.
    I do believe that if reading silently were banned, the poem would soon outstrip the novel in popularity.
    I suppose the poet can take no real comfort in this, but I do find it an interesting speculation nonetheless.

  12. March 8, 2009

    I can imagine a kind of intimate criticism that would primarily be a detailed accounting of the work of memory in re-authoring the text.
    Michael, I think that's an absolutely lovely idea - I want to read it, right now! - and I like your assessment of memorization as "Borgesian translation." (This is only mildly related, but I wonder if anyone else has had the experience of remembering something incorrectly, being startled upon encountering the correct original, and forced into re-confrontation with it, your version against the poet's. For a long time I thought the lines in Jack Gilbert's "The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart" went: "Love, we say, / God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words / get it all wrong." The "all" is entirely my own invention, but I still, after being corrected by the text, love the assonance of it. Then again, a writer as precise as Gilbert wouldn't give in to the sound's seduction at the expense of truth - words don't, after all, get it ALL wrong... just wrong enough.)

  13. March 8, 2009
     Michael Dietz

    I wonder if anyone else has had the experience of remembering something incorrectly, being startled upon encountering the correct original, and forced into re-confrontation with it, your version against the poet's.
    Mairead, I have that experience all the time with my own poems—except, of course, that there's a bit more you can do with the competing versions in that case. In fact it's practically my preferred method of finishing a piece now—rehearse it for a while in memory, without recurring to the text, and very often the slightly deformed result turns out to be what the poem really wanted to be all along.

  14. March 8, 2009
     Annie Finch

    To address Don's point, one big area for compromise is whether the students are allowed to choose the poems they memorize or not. The 19th century practice was that every student would be forced to memorize and recite the same poem in unison. I doubt any contemporary teacher of poetry would feel comfortable with that (except maybe for the openings of The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, etc. in literature classes). The way I imagine most contemporary teachers who require memorization do it, students choose the poems they want to memorize. That's a huge difference--and a vital one, given how intimate it is to have a poem in your mind. Poetry Out Loud has students choose from a pre-arranged list of poems; I prefer to give students even freer rein, though song lyrics and their own poems are not allowed. . .

  15. March 8, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    I'm interested in what Michael Brady's saying about silently reading the novel vs. orally reading the poem. I don't have any numbers handy, but I bet that a higher percentage of novels are published as audio books than poetry books in the same format. I've found the resistance to audio publishing among small poetry presses baffling, particularly now that recordings can be made cheaply and easily. And particularly considering how many poetry publishers are poets themselves. The publisher of my first book flat out refused to consider publishing a cd along with my book. (I later self-published one.) My present publisher is much more open to the idea, but has not, as yet, published any audio books. This seems to be a missed bet in the age of itunes etc.

  16. March 8, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    Isn't memorisation one of the best ways to integrate the poem into the human body?

  17. March 9, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks to all.
    Maggie makes a good point: sometimes the little bit of poetry to which we're exposed in school is an afterthought and doesn't move us. I was fortunate to have good English teachers - in high school and university.
    Like Justin, I definitely get a lot of poetry by heart by accident - not usually full poems, but stanzas, bits, pieces.
    Anna's right, I think: free verse is harder to get down by heart.
    Mairead is surely right in suggesting that memorization enables us to better "own" poems. And, yes, recitation is a key part of this process.
    Annie and LH, it sounds like many instructors make students memorize and recite. Do you have length requirements? I know a creative writing instructor who lets students pick their poems, but the poems must be at least 14 lines. And LH, I like the idea of making students come up with multiple ways of reading/reciting the poem.
    Michael, I think the Jesuits' rational is shared by many - memorization as thought (and character) building exercise. Having a stock of poems on-hand is helpful; one hears these stories of political prisoners reciting poetry in the face of incarceration, that sort of thing. Makes me think about Michel de Certeau's notion of reading as a tactic when one is disempowered. Memorization and recitation as a tactic!
    Thomas' speculation about the novel is fascinating - the "dreaming a large and involved dream at a frantic pace" is lovely.
    It sounds like the emerging consensus is: making students memorize and recite is good, but they should pick the poems.

  18. March 9, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks, also, to Zach and Vivek for their thoughts. I think the age of iTunes will have an impact on poetry, though (personally) I dread the sound of my voice reproduced and prefer to enjoy poems on the page.

  19. March 9, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    I usually ask students (college undergrads) to memorize poems a few times during the semester. They choose. The only requirement is 12 lines or more (so no haiku, though I guess I would allow a bunch of haiku) and they have to memorize something written for the page. Because we all love Ani DiFranco (uh, don't we?) but the memorizing has to be done as a negotiation between eyes and ears, and if you learn something only by hearing it, not by reading it, you miss out on that tension...

  20. March 9, 2009
     Henry Gould

    The memorization of poetry is, in a way, the memorization of memory. Mnemosyne, Memory - mother of the 9 muses. The poet was the record-keeper of the people's past & lore; poems were made memorable (with meter, rhyme) not so much to help the poet remember the lines, but to remember the content (the lines were variable anyway).
    I wonder, actually, if metaphor-making originated with "parallelism" - the varied repetition of the same image or idea - as a way to dig the memory-track a little deeper. A metaphor in this case would be shorthand parallelism. (Using metaphor & simile, in ordinary conversation, is a method of speaking with extra emphasis.)
    So along with memorizing poems, perhaps students should be asked to memorize bits of famous speeches, or compose & recite something in verse out of their own past. In fact, by assigning different pieces to each student, the teacher could evoke a sort of cultural-historical mosaic out of a particular era or event.
    In 6th grade, I had a history teacher - not english lit - who required every student to memorize the entire "Charge of the Light Brigade" & recite it, individually, to the class - & if you made a mistake, you got a hard swat across the shoulders from his yardstick. (I'm not making this up - it was a while ago.) That's one method of keeping lines of poetry in public memory - probably not the best. ("Theirs not to reason why...")

  21. March 9, 2009
     thomas brady

    Novels and non-fiction on audio book has become quite the business.
    I agree with you; why not market the audio poem more aggressively?
    Right now, to most people, the poem (or book of poems) exists in a 'no-man's land' between the novel and songs. It offers neither the landscape of story, nor the music of the shorter song-effusion.
    To be a successful audio book, I'm thinking poetry has to be sold either as a cobbled-together novel or an album of 'songs.'
    My gut feeling is audio poetry will sell better marketed in a song format, and I think the key to that might be to find some kind of generic music backing, as strange as this may sound.
    Rap music, of course, is, as some claim, 'poetry,' and rap found a musical backing (basically stolen from R & B, funk, soul, disco) suited to it.
    Could poetry do the same thing? Just a different musical backing, one more subtle, with a less pronounced beat?
    What if poetry could find a musical backing that gave it more appeal, and yet was 'in the background' enough so that the poetry would somehow remain inviolate?
    What sort of musical backing could have broad appeal, but not ruin the poetry by sounding cheesey?
    Short musical intros for the poems, interesting as music in themselves?
    Perhaps poetry needs great 'readers' that somehow serve almost as singers? Good poetry may need to always travel through the world unadorned.
    I'm thinking perhaps of a background that's very trance or ambient-like. The difficulty here, though, is that it can't be something that puts people to sleep. Maybe a music laboratory could research this and come up with something.
    If this doesn't work, maybe the 'cobbled-together novel' would be the way to go.

  22. March 9, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    Ubu.com and Penn Sound have both been offering up poems for quite a while now. I know that Rattapallax used to record the work and include it not sure if they are still doing that. Word Salad does a great job of creating playlists http://wordsalad.wordpress.com/
    For my tastes, "music backing" is the worst thing that can happen to a poem. I love pretty much everything that Caroline Bergvall does, but the accompanying sound on her reading of Mont Blanc for example, makes it hard to like.

  23. March 9, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    Oops! I linked up the version of Bergvall reading without the background noise which is as usual with her, wonderful.
    Here is a version with the background music.
    Obviously it's a matter of taste. I prefer the text itself. But Bergvall could read anything and I would listen.

  24. March 9, 2009
     michael robbins

    I hope that if I have children their teachers do not misuse the phrase "beg the question" or believe that iambic pentameter is "natural to the brain." I suppose it would be less unfortunate if they referred to "The Waste Land" as "The Wasteland."
    I never had to memorize poems in school (seventies & eighties, yo!). The first poem I memorized was Yeats's "The Rose of Peace," which I still have by heart. I memorized it because I wanted to. Nevertheless, I think students should indeed be made to memorize poems, if only because they should be made to understand that not everything can be programmed into their phones.

  25. March 9, 2009
     thomas brady

    Thank you. I tried both versions and found myself more drawn to Shelley's 'Mont Blanc' read with the music, though the background music wasn't that good and it even became somewhat unpleasant in the last 3 or 4 minutes, kind of metalic and harsh. I wasn't crazy about Bergvall's voice--I know I'm probably supposed to like it: the interesting accent, British? French? the deep, sexy, tone, and the breath control was excellent, but I don't know, I didn't like how she pronounced some of the words, there was a tendency to swallow bits occasionally, and I just found the delivery a little on the dull side. I'm being hyper-critical; she certainly wasn't bad, but the reading without the music didn't hold my attention, the music version did; though I may have listened to the very end more out of duty than anything else. Though Shelley's last lines are breathtaking. She also managed to make it sound like prose, not verse, but at least she didn't over-emote, or read in that awful affected way educated people read, when they read poetry outloud.
    My children were watching cartoons this evening, enraptured, and they have always loved cartoons more than anything, I wonder why this is? and it was those old cartoons which have a classical orchestra playing along to the action in such a way that you hardly notice the music, and yet the orchestra expressively follows every mood-swing. If a full orchestra intimately follows every mood-shift in a cartoon, why not for a poem being recited? I wonder if that's been done? A real 'movie score' in which an orchestra mimics every shift and nuance in a poem's progress. That certainly wasn't the case with the Shelley poem; the music was doing its thing, oblivious to the shifting scenes of the poem, and it certainly wasn't an orchestra.
    If a cartoon can benefit from sophisticated, (classical orchestra) unobtrusive, and yet highly expressive soundtracks, why can't a poem? Usually when you think of musical accompaniment to a poem, you think of a beatnik beating bongos, or maybe someone playing something dreamy or pleasant in the background, but why can't something more be done? What if a composer came up with actual leit motifs and themes for various segments of a poem? Has that been done? I suppose it has been done.
    I have a recording somewhere of my ex-girlfriend reading "Ode to the West Wind" and it's really something. I should go find it and see if I can play my piano to her voice...

  26. March 10, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    I like what you say about albums vs. books. I think one of the problems of poetry being in this no-man's-land you're talking about is that collections of lyrics often have far too many poems in them. Because, of course, the UNESCO definition of a book includes the requirement that it be at least 48 pages long. But there's no really good reason for most collections of lyrics being 70-100 pages long. That's like a box-set. The Collected Poems of most poets who live to a decent old age is like a Walmart Big Box-Set. Another phenomenon, touched on by Jason in his review of Jorie Graham et al., is what seems to be an increasing tendency to see the book as playground for the author's process, rather than a place to find solid standalone poems.
    Musical settings are dicey. When they work, they can be glorious, but the music doesn't have to be off by much to ruin the whole thing. There's a "press" in Canada called Rattling Books that has done some nice things with mixed media. A particularly successful example is their recordings of poems from Mary Dalton's book Merrybegot; short poems, with interludes of trumpet and flugelhorn. Also, for those who, like Jason, dread the sound of their own voice, the poems are read by an actor. Which, like the music, is problematic, but not necessarily a bad thing.
    But fancy-dancy studio-quality recording isn't necessary. I upload readings of poems to archive.org semi-regularly, just me reading the poem using my laptop and a headset mic to record them. >My recording of Browning's "My Last Duchess" has been downloaded over 5000 times in the 14 months since I posted it. Which suggests to me there's a not insignificant appetite for the poem-as-song, at least for certain canonical poems.
    I've seen some publishers posting an MP3 or two on their websites, but mainly as promotion for the book, rather than as a main event in its own right. Obviously, in the long run a bound book's a more stable medium for encrypting poems than a digital sound file, and I wouldn't wish the book away altogether, but I think it would be good to downgrade its importance a notch or two.

  27. March 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    Is "iambic pentameter natural to the brain?"
    I would say absolutely. Poe, in his "Rationale of Verse," posits that language and poetry must have evolved along side each other from spondee (two equal syllables) to increasing variety in a step-by-step manner: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, etc. The pentameter features a 3/2 ratio, since this is how 5 tends to broken down in our minds, and so forth. So, if one has any faith in mathematics at all, and how it possibly informs the universe, I would certainly say, without reservation, that 'iambic pentameter' is 'natural,' at least in the sense I am trying to outline here. Of course Poe does a much better job in the work mentioned.

  28. March 10, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    An audio recording of Mavis Gallant stories arrived in my mail box this morning from a Canadian company called Rattling Books. For those eager to sample Canadian poetry and fiction have a look. Starting with Mary Dalton would be fine:

  29. March 10, 2009

    My brain is natural to the rhythm of a zebra falling down a flight of stairs.

  30. March 10, 2009
     Annie Finch

    A good case can be made that meter is "natural" to the human brain--in the sense that meter developed with an ear to rhythms inherent in the human body, such as breath duration and the ratio between pulse and breath. But iambic pentameter is no more "natural to the brain" than other meters, for example the four-beat accentual meter of Sumerian and Anglo-Saxon poetry or the dacytlic hexameter of classical Greek and Latin. Iambic pentameter is simply the most familiar meter to English speakers at the moment. I will be posting on a related subject soon. –Annie

  31. March 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    There's nature and then there's nature-within-nature.
    In nature, you have the rhythm of a zebra falling down a flight of stairs.
    In nature-within-nature, you have iambic pentameter.

  32. March 10, 2009
     Michael Theune

    Good discussion, all--thanks--
    I'd like to add a little more emphasis, however, on the performance of the poem rather than just the memorization of the poem. Though memorization can be very useful, a poorly performed recitation serves no one well. Indeed, a poor performance of any sort, memorized or not, serves no one (and nothing--if we include the poem, and we should). This is one of the pitfalls (easily side-stepped, if one is aware of it) of Collins's Poetry 180 project: there's no guarantee that whoever is reading the poem to the class knows how to read the poem...
    I've found that putting the performance of poetry (and not just slam poems, but sonnets, dramatic monologues, etc) at the center of poetry (as literature) class ("Poetry through Performance") has some terrific advantages for poetry pedagogy. Chief among them: students often don't get the point of the analysis of poetry; however, for whatever reason, performance seems to students a proper end for their work--it's then just a small step to getting students to see that careful analysis of a poem is a big part of preparing to perform it well. Additionally, performance days, invariably, are electric, exciting classes.

  33. March 10, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks to all for the additional comments.
    Daisy and Michael, thanks for your thoughts on the memorization and performance of poems in classrooms (and Michael, I do appreciate your comments (and others') on "Going Negative"; as noted elsewhere, I'm going to let the piece itself be its own best (or worst) argument, for the time being; but, again, thanks for your thoughts). I remember those performance days at school, and they were exciting.
    I like Henry's notion of asking students to memorize "bits of famous speeches" though I'm sorry to hear about the yardstick (but as recently as the 1980s, an elementary school teacher lifted me up by fistfuls of my T-shirt and all but flung me against a wall; this teacher also enjoyed creeping up on chatty students and blasting them with a bicycle horn).
    I'm not sure I'm a huge fan of backing tracks, Thomas, but I think you're right in suggesting that, if we have to have them, something ambient is in order (I like the tasteful intro music to the print magazine's monthly podcasts, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's orchestrations for various things, including There Will Be Blood). The cartoon point is a fascinating one. I wonder what Hugh Kenner would have to say about that.
    Zach, thanks for the link to "My Last Duchess," which I have to teach later this week.
    As for the naturalness of meter, I like Kay Ryan's slightly imprecise take on patterns in general: "They hit some deep drone part of our brains and make things better."
    Oddly, I was expecting more people to be against the forcing of students to memorize poems. But it seems to be a good practice, when handled right.

  34. March 10, 2009

    a lot of people here are using the college classroom as their context, i've been seeing. i've only seen one secondary school teacher, but he teaches high school. i'm a student teacher myself and am working in an urban middle school. recently i've been thinking of how to work on reading skills, and from what i've been told, having the kids read very rhythmic, rhyming poetry with short lines and simply having them read it over and over again for five minutes each day is a great way to have kids begin their journey into better reading fluency. it's a scaffolding device--you use the rhythm and short lines, then longer lines, then more complicated rhythm, then move into paragraphs and prose. and kids translate what they learned about producing rhythm based on words into the prose and become (the reasoning goes) more fluent in their reading.
    so while memorization for a requirement is tedious to high schoolers (i never did, but i had to in college) and middle schoolers, i think using some poetry as a tool/gateway to better reading strategies is cooler.

  35. March 10, 2009
     michael robbins

    Thomas, you need to get over this strange idea that Poe was some sort of paragon of versification -- this plodding, monotonous, tin-eared poet. Very, very weird poet to uphold as an expert on meter, which he barely understood.
    Jason, thanks for yr thanks. I'm always tickled to see how personally people take "negative criticism" of poetry (not speaking of the authors under review themselves, of course). Seems like bad faith to me. And reveals an anti-critical bias that I, for one, find quite infantile.

  36. March 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    I agree that performance of a poem is crucial. I made this point once on another poetry site to a rather annoyed slam poet who had proudly announced himself as such: it is simply this: ALL readings of poems are 'performance.' A recording of T.S. Eliot reading 'Prufrock' is just as 'slam' as any 'slam' could be. Emotion and shouting have little to do with it. Even the way we read a poem to ourselves is 'performance,' and to make students aware of this by performing, or just reciting poetry, has to be a great learning tool. It is not that the actor is the greatest poet of all...well... perhaps he is.

  37. March 11, 2009
     Michael Theune

    I agree that all readings are "performance"; however, I'd also claim that performances can be accurate or inaccurate, good or bad (along with a host of other possible evaluative descriptors). There are great slam performances (sometimes involving high energy, sometimes not), and not-so great ones. Some (non-slam) poets serve their work well when they read it out loud; others do not. There are great student performances of poems, and some weaker ones. But I don't think that the weaker (or: inaccurate) performances really are great learning tools--except to the extent that they are steps toward better, more accurate performances.
    An example: to mention just one element in poems I try to get my students to pick up on in their performances: the turn. If a student's performance of a poem doesn't register the emotional or tonal shifts that occur at a poem's turns, that's an inaccurate reading. This doesn't mean that the student has to bawl with pain and then scream with excitement when performing Shakespeare's 29th sonnet, but their reading should register the transformation of the speaker's emotions and outlook. And getting students to see this, and perform this, I think helps with the ways they "perform" their own, silent reading: they learn that a poem demands something of them.

  38. March 11, 2009

    Oh, Michael, infantile...I almost took the bait.
    Michael T,
    Thanks for the intriguing replies here. Makes me want to read your book of essays. As for performance, I'm not sure about the turn in a poem. Or the emphasizing of it. I sort of like Leonard Cohen's advice about "not reading" poetry like a poet...or like we expect a poet to read. This often leads to overly dramati and inappropriately weighted readings. But I think that "reading" the poem and being present in the poem as one is reading, no matter what other decisions and or skill one brings to the reading, really makes a difference. If nothing else, presence.

  39. March 11, 2009
     michael robbins

    Shameless Lemon, you know I don't think you're infantile. It's all love, dawg.

  40. March 11, 2009
     Michael Theune

    About turns: if you want to dip your toes in, snoop around here:
    But, of course, I'm certain you should rush over to the Teachers & Writers web site and order a copy--stat!
    About the turn in performance: I agree: the turn does not necessarily need to be emphasized, if by emphasized you mean over-emphasized, contributing to the sort of reading you suggest might end up "overly dramatic and inappropriately weighted." We're agreed such readings are problematic. However, I'd simply add that a reading which completely misses, which fails to register, a poem's turns also is problematic. (Turns, that is, among many other elements within a poem--the turn is just one example...a rhythmically mechanical reading, I would think, would be as problematic as a reading which does not in some way register turns.)
    I love the idea of presence in a reading of a poem, but, again, I'd simply add that, to my thinking, attentiveness and responsiveness to what the poem is and does make up a large portion of such presence.
    All best,

  41. March 11, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Thomas, you need to get over this strange idea that Poe was some sort of paragon of versification -- this plodding, monotonous, tin-eared poet. Very, very weird poet to uphold as an expert on meter, which he barely understood."

  42. March 11, 2009

    I shall endeavor to find your book, and thanks for the link to your blog. There are some intriguing exercises and notes. As for the turn, I agree with your point that a poem "which fails to register, a poem's turns also is problematic" IF the poem has a turn. But does every poem have a turn per se? Must every poem be registered similarly? I doubt you think so, nor do I.
    By overemphasizing I mean, no matter how emphatically and/or slowly one reads a poem about nothing it's still about nothing...giving a word pause doesn't give it weight, writing a poem with weight gives a poem weight. Hence Cohen's advice not to read "poetry" as "poetry."
    Still, I think having students read a poem several different ways shows the poet that there are in fact choices to be made in a reading--one isn't simply at the mercy of the text.
    You see, I sensed that was the case.
    Shamelessly yours,

  43. March 13, 2009

    A professor of mine recently introduced me to this blog, which I have really been enjoying. She had us read the blog post, "Mystery & Birds". One of the points in the post was to "learn the poems you love" and to "become an expert" on them. Well, even before having read the post, I can say that lines of my favorites often scurry through my head when I think of certain situations or someone says something to remind me of it. (Depending on the audience, I may or may not say it out loud). Now that I have become consumed by poetry, I recognize the power of this exercise.. The poetry you read becomes part of you - you adopt it into your being! (How amazing.)
    While I can say that I have now taken the plunge into poetry, I realize that it has always been part of my life. I have always been interested in words and the ways they work to excite us. When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher had us recite a poem. It was a gateway for me - I recited an e.e. cummings poem and became addicted to him for awhile after. I couldn't stop reading him! This may not be the case for all students - the ones who could care less about poetry - but for some, like me, it might function as a little path of discovery.

  44. March 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    You wrote, "When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher had us recite a poem. It was a gateway for me"
    I hear what you're saying, because, let's face it, all life is performance (or rehearsal), from a job interview, to going out for a school play, to just talking to another person. Choosing a poem, then reciting it in front of others, turns poetry into performance, makes you and the poem join in a social act. I can understand how reciting a poem can be a "gateway" experience for poetry for a great many people.
    Do you write a lot of poetry? From what you say, I intuit that writing poetry is nothing more than internalizing the poetry that you love, but not just internalizing the poetry, internalizing the performance of the poetry, for I just had an idea that the poet is really an internal actor, or mimic; a great poem is where the poet has done all the acting necessary and put it in the language, so that a non-actor can simply recite the poem and it is as if merely reciting the poem is like a terrific piece of acting; all you have to do is read the poem with an understanding of it; you don't have to 'act' it, for that's already been done.

  45. March 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks to both Michaels (Theune and Robbins) as well as Thomas and LH for keeping this pretty productive thread going. I'm enjoying the ongoing, cross-thread debate about Poe!
    Andrew and Sarah, thanks for adding your own experiences.
    Thomas, this is quite cool: "...a great poem is where the poet has done all the acting necessary and put it in the language, so that a non-actor can simply recite the poem and it is as if merely reciting the poem is like a terrific piece of acting; all you have to do is read the poem with an understanding of it; you don't have to 'act' it, for that's already been done." You seem to be suggesting that even a lackluster recitation, w/ just enough "understanding", can be redeemed by a great poem because a great poem has already done so much of the reciter's (sic?) work. Thanks for this.

  46. March 13, 2009

    If I were to require recitation, I would teach that it used to be popular entertainment, until the 1940s, according to Don Share, on this Harriet thread from a year ago.
    Drew Barrymore's great-grandfather Maurice Barrymore -- father of John, Lionel, and Ethel -- made part of his living doing recitations. "Casey at the Bat" became a national phenomenon in part through the touring of actor/reciter DeWolf Hopper. Here's a recording of Hopper's recitation in 1909 -- it's really something!

  47. March 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Thanks for remembering that thread, John!
    I'm wondering what folks might think of Wyatt Mason's blog post at Harper's about all this - here's an excerpt:
    "I wonder how many schools in America make the memorization of poetry a part of their curriculum these days. Do students still encounter the teacher who forces the class to digest a poem for the sake of a grade? In my case, in junior high, we were to memorize those most sorrowing lines from Macbeth. All of us consented to it, all of us did it better or worse–all but one of us, that is, who, without explanation, refused. Rather than descant, he decided to do a monologue as Shakespeare. Thus a fourteen year-old flannel-clad Bard of Avon strutted and fretted around the room, dignified despite the background titters, explaining why he had written the lines we were memorizing. Our teacher, not unmoved, nonetheless gave him a zero. Only one other poem has been imposed upon me in a similar manner: “Le Pont Mirabeau,” in a phonetics class, while I was a student in Paris. I still know it, and I like having it in my head. There is a benefit, chastening on one hand and exalting on the other, to having the better words of others knocking around inside the skull.
    Similar benefits are attributed to mantras–a friend once told me, his voice serious, that his mantra was given to him by his guru upon their first meeting, and he has been reciting this bit of Sanskrit willingly for years, not entirely sure what it means. For my part, I prefer mantras of my own choosing to fill out my mental pockets. Good for long bus rides. Good for moments that test one’s composure. Or, of course, just because they’re fun to have and share. Memorizing poetry has social utility."
    Click here for the whole thing.

  48. March 14, 2009
     Justin Cook

    Mr. Robbins,
    This may essentially be a linguistics issue, but “beg the question” is commonly used the way I used it in my earlier post. I understand that technically I used it incorrectly, but since when is casual blogging a technical science? The English language is a bastard child anyway, and one that I believe we perhaps both love. We don’t have the French academy to help us wrangle over correct usage in English because it’s a living language, one you use very well, though, for peevish incendiarism, which in its own way is kind of charming. In fact, it’s not just charming, but the charmingest ever, dawg.
    I’m not so sure what bothered you about my assertion that iambic meter is “natural to the brain”. It’s a prosaic phrasing for sure, but there is a lot of research to support the idea that metrical patterns in poetry speak to some primal part of the brain, and I thank Thomas Brady for supporting my assertion. I was merely noting that Japanese students appreciate the underlying structure even if iambic rhythm isn’t a fundamental part of their own language or poetic tradition.
    “The Waste Land”, “The Wasteland”… c’mon! It’s not like I said “The Waistland”. You are indeed a stylistic maven. If you only knew how atrosses my spelling is! Students correct me all the time, but they’re kind when they do it, and they’re good-natured. Teenagers, with all those hormones raging in their body, with all their potential for pettiness, self-loathing, and feigned superiority, are more civil than you.
    On a final note, please, please avoid procreation. You’ll be completely disheartened by a child’s foibled attempts at communication. I do appreciate your hostile huffishness, though. It will make great fodder for my next Theory of Knowledge unit on civility and the anonymity of the internet, so thanks!
    Furthering the Aims of A Dialogue on Tone

  49. March 14, 2009

    Don, I "remembered" that thread only because I was searching for the story of Maurice Barrymore reciting, and I'd found that I'd told it already here at Harriet. I was shocked to see that it was over a year ago! Either we're having fun, or time rolls faster now that I'm "over the hill" -- time's flying! Wyatt Mason has a good point about the deterioration of memory!
    I also agree that "Memorizing poetry has social utility," and having poems by heart can be calming too. (I had to ask Google whether I've told this story here before too, and I have, in part.) My grandpa memorized "Abou Ben Adhem" in order to join his college frat in the 1920s. I found the poem in a 1960s anthology of "popular poetry" that I bought at a flea market in the early '80s. A few years later while we were hanging out my grandpa randomly recited the first line, which I recognized and asked about. He told me why he knew it; I memorized it to please him. And now if I have trouble sleeping, I recite it to myself slowly and it helps knock me out. Soporific! I'm not sure Leigh Hunt would be pleased. But I love his poem and have recited it at parties. Its vision of humanistic religious pluralism has seemed more necessary than ever in the 21st century.
    Here's the poem, if anybody doesn't know it and is interested:

  50. March 14, 2009
     michael robbins

    Heh. I hold children & English teachers to different standards, but here's a tip: urging people you don't know not to procreate is so much greater a breach of civility than correcting someone's solecisms that yr forthcoming "Theory of Knowledge unit" (ahem) would be best directed inward. So, you know, you sure told me!

  51. March 14, 2009
     michael robbins

    And also, yes, the idea of a given meter's inhering "naturally" "in the brain" is at best nonsensical. I assume you're familiar with Chomsky's innateness hypothesis? Please elaborate on how the cultural artifice of alternating stress patterns is somehow compatible with it. Perhaps employ materials from yr Theory of Knowledge unit.

  52. March 15, 2009
     Justin Cook

    Henry’s comment about how ancient bards used metrical patterns to remember content, not lines, was insightful. In that case, lines are just the container and not integral to the contained. Today that artifice has been turned on its head I guess. Also, the idea that metaphor is a “shorthand parallelism” is an interesting conjecture about the evolution of language/thought. Can you point me towards any resources on that?
    I think Jung’s common unconsciousness, not as a metaphysical realm, but as a kind of “buzzing” in our genetic makeup, might lend credence to the idea that some of our more sophisticated linguistic devises are innate. Maybe not line-breaks, the ability to do scansion, or to appreciate enjambment, but metaphor might be innate, even if it isn’t triggered till the abstract thought stage somewhere in the horror of puberty.
    The Art Instinct by Dennis Dutton looks at the idea of creativity as it relates to evolution. I haven’t read it, but saw a great interview of the author on bloggingheads. It seems with the human genome project and all science is learning, some language theorist should be out there saying something new, like Dutton. Anybody know of anything?

  53. March 15, 2009

    I was reading a Woody Guthrie bio last night, and learned that in 1939 he barnstormed around the migrant labor camps in California with actor Will Geer. Geer, who is most famous today for having played Grandpa Walton on TV in the '70s, would memorize a poem a day and recite poetry to the farmworkers. People really liked their show.

  54. March 16, 2009
     thomas brady

    Michael Robbins,
    I've got one word for you: equality.
    Iambic feet are equal to each other. Five equal feet in a row is pleasing. The pleasing is natural.
    True, the iambic pentameter, per se, may not, in itself, hold a special place in our brains, but the principle, of which the iambic pentameter is a part, certainly resides there.
    You also might learn something from the following:
    Verse originates in the human enjoyment of equality, fitness. To this enjoyment, also, all the moods of verse, rhythm, metre, stanza, rhyme, alliteration, the refrain, and other analagous effects, are to be referred.
    To return to equality. Its idea embraces those of similarity, proportion, identity, repetition, and adaptation or fitness. It might not be very difficult to go even behind the idea of equality, and show both how and why it is that the human nature takes pleasure in it, but such an investigation would, for any purpose now in view, be supererogatory. It is sufficient that the fact is undeniable – the fact that man derives enjoyment from his perception of equality. Let us examine a crystal. We are at once interested by the equality between the sides and between the angles of one of its faces; the equality of the sides pleases us, that of the angles doubles the pleasure. On bringing to view a second face in all respects similar to the first, this pleasure seems to be squared; on bringing to view a third it appears to be cubed, and so on. I have no doubt, indeed, that the delight experienced, if measurable, would be found to have exact mathematical relation such as I suggest, that is to say, as far as a certain point, beyond which there would be a decrease in similar relations.
    The perception of pleasure in the equality of sounds is the principle of Music. Unpractised ears can appreciate only simple equalities, such as are found in ballad airs. While comparing one simple sound with another they are too much occupied to be capable of comparing the equality subsisting between these two simple sounds taken conjointly, and two other similar simple sounds taken conjointly. Practised ears, on the other hand, appreciate both equalities at the same instant, although it is absurd to suppose that both are heard at the same instant. One is heard and appreciated from itself, the other is heard by the memory, and the instant glides into and is confounded with the secondary appreciation. Highly cultivated musical taste in this manner enjoys not only these double equalities, all appreciated at once, but takes pleasurable cognizance, through memory, of equalities the members of which occur at intervals so great that the uncultivated taste loses them altogether. That this latter can properly estimate or decide on the merits of what is called scientific music is of course impossible. But scientific music has no claim to intrinsic excellence; it is fit for scientific ears alone. In its excess it is the triumph of the physique over the morale of music. The sentiment is overwhelmed by the sense. On the whole, the advocates of the simpler melody and harmony have infinitely the best of the argument, although there has been very little of real argument on the subject.
    In verse, which cannot be better designated than as an inferior or less capable Music, there is, happily, little chance for complexity. Its rigidly simple character not even Science – not even Pedantry can greatly pervert.
    The rudiment of verse may possibly be found in the spondee. The very germ of a thought seeking satisfaction in equality of sound would result in the construction of words of two syllables, equally accented. In corroboration of this idea we find that spondees most abound in the most ancient tongues. The second step we can easily suppose to be the comparison, that is to say, the collocation of two spondees – or two words composed each of a spondee. The third step would be the juxtaposition of three of these words. By this time the perception of monotone would induce further consideration; and thus arises what Leigh Hunt so flounders in discussing under the title of "The Principle of Variety in Uniformity." Of course there is no principle in the case – nor in maintaining it. The "Uniformity" is the principle – the "Variety" is but the principle's natural safeguard from self-destruction by excess of self. "Uniformity," besides, is the very worst word that could have been chosen for the expression of the general idea at which it aims.
    The perception of monotone having given rise to an attempt at its relief, the first thought in this new direction would be that of collating two or more words formed each of two syllables differently accented (that is to say, short and long) but having the same order in each word – in other terms, of collating two or more iambuses, or two or more trochees.
    The success of the experiment with the trochees or iambuses (the one would have suggested the other) must have led to a trial of dactyls or anapæsts – natural dactyls or anapæsts – dactylic or anapæstic words. And now some degree of complexity has been attained. There is an appreciation, first, of the equality between the several dactyls or anapæsts, and, secondly, of that between the long syllable and the two short conjointly.
    We have now gone so far as to suppose men constructing indefinite sequences of spondaic, iambic, trochaic, dactylic, or anapæstic words. In extending these sequences, they would be again arrested by the sense of monotone. A succession of spondees would immediately have displeased; one of iambuses or of trochees, on account of the variety included within the foot itself, would have taken longer to displease; one of dactyls or anapæsts still longer; but even the last, if extended very far, must have become wearisome. The idea, first, of curtailing, and secondly, of defining the length of a sequence, would thus at once have arisen. Here then is the line, of verse proper.
    The principle of equality being constantly at the bottom of the whole process, lines would naturally be made, in the first instance equal in the number of their feet; in the second instance, there would be variation in the mere number; one line would be twice as long as another; then one would be some less obvious multiple of another; then still less obvious proportions would be adopted: – nevertheless there would be proportion, that is to say a phase of equality, still.

  55. March 16, 2009
     michael robbins

    OK, Thomas, this is my last post on this subject.
    I've got two words for you: you're wrong.
    If you would, as I've urged you to do, consult some theorists of versification besides yr beloved inept Poe, you wouldn't embarrass yrself by proffering so obviously false a thesis as "Iambic feet are equal to each other." They clearly are not. If they were, all iambic poems would sound as stilted & monotonous as Poe's. In fact, variation is the key to iambic meter -- as Timothy Steele & others have shown, an iambic foot of relatively light stress is sometimes followed by an iambic foot whose unstressed syllable actually receives more stress than the last foot's stressed one. Furthermore, the peaks & valleys of stress pattern within a given line or a given poem are never equal. The voice grants more heavy stress & longer duration to certain syllables than to others. Indeed, as Steele & Attridge stress, emphasis is a relative matter: it is within the iambic foot that stress is gauged, not within our habitual speech patterns. Thus a syllable that is often unstressed in everyday speech might receive a stress by virtue of its place in the iambic pattern. This is a lesson Annie Finch could learn as well.
    I've been teaching poetry & meter for 15 years, including most recently at the University of Chicago. I don't need anyone to lecture me on whom I could learn something from.

  56. March 18, 2009
     thomas brady

    That's great that you teach at the U. of Chicago.
    I am very aware that iambic feet vary, and that poets (including Poe) substitute feet for the sake of varietry.
    This is not the issue.
    Granting this in no way means that I am "wrong" to say that our ears can detect an iambic rhythm.
    It is not wrong, in other words, to say an iamb is an iamb, and why you would make such an assertion is very strange, indeed.
    You, however, are asserting (and I find this hard to believe) that an iamb is not an iamb:
    "an iambic foot of relatively light stress is sometimes followed by an iambic foot whose unstressed syllable actually receives more stress than the last foot's stressed one."
    The above does not describe an iambic rhythm. If iambs in any verse are not equal to each other, the iambic rhythm will falter. This faltering may be intentional, but this does not change the fact that an iamb is an iamb, the human ear can detect as much, and we are pleased in noting the similarity between iambs.
    The only issue here at all is: why does Poe make you so angry?

  57. March 18, 2009
     michael robbins

    Thomas, if you'll read what I wrote carefully you'll see not only that I am describing an iamb but that what I say is self-evident & uncontroversial. We do indeed occasionally find lines in which, as Steele puts it, "one of the metrically unaccented syllables receives more speech stress than one of the metrically accented syllables." Here is a line of iambic tetrameter:
    The dumb grows strangely talkative
    Do you really want to argue that the unaccented syllable "grows" is somehow less stressed when you read it aloud than the accented "tive"? Obviously, when you read it aloud (read it aloud), "grows" receives more stress than "tive." Iambs are not created equal. All that matters is that WITHIN THE FOOT the first syllable is weaker than the second. An iambic rhythm is, simply, a pattern in which, generally speaking, an unaccented syllable is followed by one that is accented. There is nothing in that definition or in the history of English verse practice to suggest that in some cases (it's not uncommon at all, I can offer dozens of other examples if you'd like) one of those unaccented syllables, somewhere in the line, is actually stressed more strongly by the voice when read aloud than one of the stressed syllables.
    The only issue here at all is: why is Poe the only authority you will trust, in spite of all the evidence that he didn't know what he was talking about?

  58. March 19, 2009
     thomas brady

    Great point.
    "Grows" does get more stress than "tive" in your example above.
    If you said, "I was surrounded by the talkative ones," the "tive" would get less stress still. Placement in a sentence does have bearing on stress, and yes, some iambs have stronger stressed syllables than other iambs. Further, in reading an iambic pentameter line like Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be" inevitably one will hear a slightly stronger stress within some of the iambs, "fears" and "cease," perhaps.
    But these exceptions do not overturn the rule.
    The DUMB/ grows STRANGE/ ly TALK/ a-TIVE.
    You ask: " Do you really want to argue that the unaccented syllable 'grows' is somehow less stressed when you read it aloud than the accented 'tive'? "
    I would answer, unhesitatingly, yes; to keep the iambic rhythm intact, one would unnaturally trip over 'grows' and thus pronounce it more quickly than "tive."
    One would.
    But would one?
    "Grows" resents like hell being lightly tripped over, just to satisfy the strange designs of a would-be iambic poet.
    GROWS might even insist on sounding like a ceasura, so that the line would sound like this:
    The DUMB/ *GROWS*/ STRANGE-ly/ TALK- a-tive.
    'The DUMB' is an iamb, 'GROWS' is a ceasura, 'STRANGE-ly' is a trochee, and 'TALK-a-tive' is a dactyl.
    A mess, true, but this is not MY fault.
    If you think 'The dumb grows strangely talkative' is a solid iambic line, try speaking it the way you would speak, "When I have fears that I may cease" without it sounding ridiculous.

  59. March 19, 2009
     michael robbins

    It's not a mess, it is iambic, & yr comments just reveal the degree to which you're convinced of a false thesis that leads to plodding rhythms of the sort exemplified by a certain poet I can't stand: that meter is inflexible. Imagine if everyone wrote like Chidiock Tichborne. Here's a point Steele makes often, echoed by most thinkers about these matters: even if a line contains a trochaic (or some other) substitution, it is iambic if iambic is the governing meter of the poem. Substitution & variation are necessary to meter, not deviations from it. A given meter is simply the pattern to which the lines abstractly adhere. And yr reading of the line I offered makes no sense to my ears, which hear it as simply one kind of iambic line among several: as I've said throughout, the peaks & valleys of meter conform to no fixed pitch or height or depth: stresses vary. All that matters is the relative relation of the syllables within a foot.

  60. March 19, 2009
     thomas brady

    You say "it is iambic if iambic is the governing meter of the poem." Precisely. This is what I was saying when you were telling me I was "wrong."
    A "governing iambic meter" is not possible, however, if we continually attempt to force DUMB GROWS STRANGE into iambic, into a meter which must live not only within the foot, as you say, but in the foot sequence--which is why we say 'governing meter.' I never said I was against substitution, but that requires rigor, as well.
    I have read "Missing Measures," by the way, and other works besides. Why, I have even played fantasy baseball with Tim Steele's brother and sister, so I really don't think of Mr. Steele as super-human. You are quite mistaken if you think my thesis is "false," or that any of the 20th century versification texts--which don't even include Poe, the master, in their bibliographies--represent any advance over what Poe outlines in 'The Rationale of Verse.'
    The new formalists' woeful lack of popularity is perhaps an indication of failure in the field since Pope, Byron, and Poe wrote verses. The ear, it appears, is getting worse, not better, despite the myriad studies and texts--none of which reflect the slightest curiosity towards the guy who got it right.
    I have not caught the 'downplay Poe' plague. The disease afflicted Yvor Winters at Stamford, Vendler at Harvard, Harold Bloom at Yale, and no doubt prowls the halls of the U. Chicago. I wonder where you first caught it. Surely it wasn't when you were reading the master himself.

  61. March 19, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    The dumb grows strangely talkative = iambic. It takes an effort to stress "grows" - why bother?
    I'm an in-house reader at Soundzine, and I've found what Thomas the Great said to be true, even of *perhaps* not great (who knows) poems:
    "...a great poem is where the poet has done all the acting necessary and put it in the language, so that a non-actor can simply recite the poem and it is as if merely reciting the poem is like a terrific piece of acting; all you have to do is read the poem with an understanding of it; you don't have to 'act' it, for that's already been done."
    What works best for me is to surrender to the poem - to be as undramatic as possible - and let the poem speak through me. Then the poem teaches me how to recite it. Perhaps I even deliberately try to make the recitation lackluster. Then hopefully the poem shines through.

  62. March 19, 2009
     michael robbins

    Sigh. "Regard as superhuman" indeed. Have you considered that yr need to frame things in these terms reflects yr own attitudes toward Poe rather than mine toward anyone? Poe is a poetaster, a period piece, & I honestly thought his poems rubbish before I knew who Winters or Bloom was. Of course the versification texts' bibliographies don't include him, for his ideas are as muddled as his verse is plodding. Heck, go back & read Sidney to see how wrong Poe was.
    Enough, or too much!

  63. March 20, 2009
     thomas brady

    You are becoming more and more difficult to follow. So I'm supposed to "go back and read Sidney" and this will prove that Poe is "muddled" and Steele has all the answers? Calling 'The Rationale of Verse' "muddled" says much more about you than about Poe, I'm afraid. And you talk of my 'need to frame...'!? Trochaic might seem "plodding" to you, but again, your description of Poe is less than enlightening. But I do appreciate your taking the time to reply.

  64. March 20, 2009
     thomas brady

    "The dumb grows strangely talkative = iambic. It takes an effort to stress "grows" - why bother?"
    It does require more "effort" to say "grows," never mind "stress" it, because we have to enunciate the 'g,' the 'r,' the long 'o' sound and the 's.' So it's not that I "bother" to linger on "grows;" language calls me to it. Also, "Talkative" is a dactyl. I realize these are minute considerations, but in verse these minute materialities add up. NO ONE would say 'the DUMB grows STRANGE-ly TALK-a-TIVE.' Say it outloud with that iambic beat and tell me that sound at all natural. It sounds like one of those pre-recorded messages.
    Guys like Michael don't hate Poe because he was "wrong" or "muddled;" they don't like his rigor. Poe calls them on THEIR "muddle." That's why they bellyache.

  65. March 21, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Thomas, scanning a line is not the same thing as reading it out loud or even reading it silently. As I think someone mentioned earlier, scanning is a question of listening for relative stress and subtle shifts in stress within each foot. So while you wouldn't say TALK-a-TIVE, with a mighty pounce on TIVE, TIVE nevertheless has a greater stress than the syllable preceding it - a.

  66. March 21, 2009
     michael robbins

    Mary, you're quite right, & I was the one who pointed that out earlier. But Thomas isn't interested in listening to what anyone says, only in insisting despite any of the sense that is being made against his points that Poe is right about meter. He regularly makes a complete hash of scansion because, evidently, Poe says that he should.

  67. March 21, 2009
     Tim Upperton

    "The dumb grows strangely talkative" is as iambic as it gets - as iambic as "The curfew tolls the knell of passing day". But there's speech rhythm, and there's the rhythm of meter. In the opening lines of Gray's elegy, speech rhythm and meter coincide, so we can hear the tolling of the bell. But if they always coincide, the result is monotony (like quite a lot of Poe, I'm afraid).
    In "The dumb grows strangely talkative", speech rhythm and meter part company (a little) - one is a kind of counterpoint to the other. That's a valuable tension, I think. But it doesn't make the line less iambic.

  68. March 21, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Michael, can you say "hash of scansion" five times very fast? But seriously, I wonder how quickly your students grasp scansion. I don't think it was the fault of my professors that way back when, I could not understand meter. Perhaps it's something that can't really be taught. It wasn't until I wrote ten million lines of strict IP, privately, on my own steam, that it all fell into place. It took time, practice, patience. What happens with your students?

  69. March 23, 2009
     thomas brady

    That's exactly what I'm hearing: the speech and the meter parting company; that sort of thing can hide itself well in brief spurts, but if a poet was really convinced that 'the dumb grows strangely talkative' was iambic par excellence, and attempted a long poem with that sort of ear, disaster would follow; a reader would lose patience, as the minor (I'll admit) error in the hearing would eventually manifest itself. The 'counterpoint' you mention is a worm in the apple, I'm afraid. Meter is not for everybody; excuses for sloppy meter masking as scholarship doesn't help. Just because a certain vague rhythm strikes our fancy does not mean we shouldn't call a spade a spade. I realize I'm taking the long view, but sometimes it's proper to do so.
    Poe's music is more like Beethoven's than jazz; "monotony" is a philistine's take on Poe, sort of like the people who say that Beethoven sounds to them like 'funeral music.'
    Poe says something interesting in 'The Rationale of Verse,' which is that if the reader does not hear immediately the intention of the meter, the poet is always wrong, not the reader. The poet can always mouthe a rhythm to sound the way he wants it to sound, but meter is an objective truth. Variation can exist, and will better exist, when we DO NOT fudge in a fanciful sort of way.

  70. March 23, 2009
     Tim Upperton

    "If the reader does not hear immediately the intention of the meter, the poet is always wrong": did Poe really say that? So in the use of meter, there's no room for subtlety? That speech rhythm and meter converge and diverge is one of the pleasures of prosody; it's not an "error", nor is it "sloppy". If meter hits me repeatedly and expectedly with the force of a blunt instrument, then yes, the effect is one of monotony. If it approaches and departs from the rhythm of speech, then subtlety, surprise, and any number of tonal effects are possible. You seem to cling to a very limited, cut-and-dried notion of what meter can and can't do (which makes your "philistine" slur a little ironic) , and you ignore the actual metrical practice of poets from Shakespeare to Marilyn Hacker. Just because Poe says it, don't make it so.

  71. March 24, 2009
     thomas brady

    On the contrary, subtlety is only possible in the realm of a certain definitiveness.
    Ironically, one can be beaten to death by subtlety as with a blunt instrument, as well, when subtlety is a fancy or a rhythm that is merely subjective. Natural sounds provide thousands of intricate rhythms which please on some level, but verse will be drowned by such 'subtelty.'

  72. March 29, 2009
     Tim Upperton

    Beaten to death and drowned... goodness!
    Michael Robbins's reference, on another thread, to the NPEP prompted me to pluck my copy from the shelf and turn to the entry on meter, where I read this:
    "The distinction between meter and rhythm is ancient and fundamental. Precise accounts of the distinction vary, but in general, rhythm becomes manifest in speech"; and the metrical pattern "must only be made manifest at the very outset of a poem, and repeated thereafter only as often as necessary for the pattern not to become blurred or forgotten. To insist that every line conform to one pattern is to misunderstand what the mind requires for pattern recognition: monotony is fatal."
    Thomas Brady, from now on your argument is with the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, not with me.

  73. March 30, 2009
     Colin Ward


    Is there some reason why we don't just say the second foot is a spondaic substitution?\r

    FWIW, I scan this as 1-5-4-5-1-5-1-3, where 4s and 5s are stresses, 1s and 2s aren't, and 3s swing either way due to their position.\r


  74. March 30, 2009
     michael robbins

    Because "strange" receives more stress than "grows." True spondees are very rare. (Hamlet's "Go, go," for instance.) If there is a light-heavy alternation then the foot is an iamb, because that's all an iamb is -- it doesn't matter if the two syllables are closer in stress than usual.

  75. March 31, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Thanks, Michael. For what it's worth, I agree that a perfectly balanced spondee is very rare, a molossus even more so.

  76. July 15, 2009
     Janet Fagal


    I just found this site. I am an elementary teacher and for the past five years I have been happily letting my 3rd graders memorize and recite poetry. We end the year with a poetry recital. My students continually amaze me. There is no requirement, no test, no homework, no pressure to particpate and yet the children joyfully and playfully memorize over 45 poems including Yeat's The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Whitman's O Captian, My Captain and Carroll's Jabberwocky. The best part? They do it as easily as breathing. An early poster alluded to this idea in how she has "magically" memorized parts of Shakespeare simply by the repetition. A visiting author told me that the Inuit word for poetry is the same as their word for breathing. I have used "they learn the poems magically" and "as easily as breathing" since the beginning. It is wonderful. \r

    It takes very little class time. I have a few simple strategies and I believe that the educational and personal gains from doing this are wide and important. The parents love it, the kids love it and as a teacher who was eligible to retire 5 years ago, I love it and continue to want to teach so I can see what the children can do. \r

    This year in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday I read them the Gettysburg Address and the children learned it and wanted to perfect it, which they did. I think the essential difference between what I am doing and some of the past ways of requiring poetry recitation in conjunction with elocution and individual memorization, is that we do it as a group. 8 and 9 year olds are eager to participate in most things. I believe that "safety in numbers", "keeping it positive", and "teaching" the poems in a natural way is what contributes to the success of my approach. I do work on inflection, phrasing and careful delivery, but I only allow a few hand motions in a couple of "fun" poems for variety's sake. \r

    My biggest dream is that I can spread this idea to many schools and teachers. Upon examination of the poems I use (chosen because I like them, I think the kids will like them, they match the curriculum I teach or have beautiful language or historic importance, etc.), how I approach poetry (no pressure) and what my children have accomplished in the areas of knowledge, vocabulary development, fluent reading, public speaking and writing, not to mention learning about poetic forms, poets, and the language of poetry. \r

    I think I have stumbled onto something that can give teachers and students "a lot of bang for the educational buck". Not least among this is a love of poetry and an interest in this subject that will hopefully last a lifetime. \r

    I have heard from many grandparents about poems they learned as children and still re-call. My students will be reading a passage and say, "oh that reminds me of a poem" and then ask to recite a specific poem. Lastly this year I went with my students to a beautiful state park and we went on a hike around a glacial lake. When the path split, I said, "this reminds me of a poem" and with no prompting from me the children began, "Two roads diverged in yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both...." And they continued to recite as we walked on the uphill path " so took the other as just as fair..." This is an example of how I have tried to bring poetry, shared experience and beautiful language into my student's lives. But it was a teaching moment I hope I never forget!\r

    I have an article coming out in a newsletter and am working on a book about this approach. I would be eager to hear from any others who know of teachers in elementary school doing something similar.\r

    I am not a poetry expert, but gained a love of poetry from my mother who learned it from a favorite teacher many years ago. My interest in poetry has grown and grown in the 5 years I have been weaving poetry into the daily fabric of my classroom. But as I tell everyone, this takes very little time, does not require the teacher to know the poems by heart in order to get the children to do it and is lots of fun. \r

    People who see my recital have said things like it was incredible, one of the best evenings out of their life, was the most amazing thing they had seen in their educational career. We do not even have a "real' run-through rehearsal of poetry night. I know it might sound like I am "bragging" but really, what I am hoping for is others who would want to do what I am doing or share what they have discovered. Poetry makes it all worthwhile.\r

    I am hoping that my students will be eager students of poetry when they get to high school and beyond.

  77. July 16, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Janet, the great work you are doing with your kids on poetry is very similar to the NEA's big recitation program Poetry Out Loud (limited alas to high school). I met five state POL winners when I was in Washington at the National Book Fair last September in my capacity as a translator. Great kids. I work in a poetry-writing project, Poetry Inside Out, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation in san francisco, with mostly bilingual third through tenth-graders, teaching them to write their own poetry by way of translating great poetry from Spanish. You can check us out at www.catranslation.org. I'm sure our work would inspire vou even if your kids only speak English. Here's a poem, by Stephanie Serratos, third grade:\r

    When it's hot\r
    There's joy\r
    And birds make music\r

    Tuesday in Spring\r
    Happiness springs\r
    From a well\r

    In my dream\r
    There's a natural garden\r
    With a sun that's mine\r

    In the ocean\r
    there's parallel music\r
    That shines like gold\r
    that shines like gold

  78. August 2, 2009
     Janet Fagal

    Thanks, John for your comments and the link to your site, not to mention your students' poetry. I know the NEA program and am trying to start it at my school at the HS level. I also know the ROW contest but have not entered that one, though it is my goal for next year. It is hard to teach all the subjects and get the 3rd graders writing what I consider "contest worthy" poems early in the year, but I KNOW they can do it. \r

    My students have won contests with some of their wonderful poetry and we celebrate the others with our in-house publication. I will send you a couple I hope you will enjoy. While I took Spanish eons ago in high school, I am afraid I am fairly illiterate when it comes to savoring your students' poems in Spanish. I thought Maggie's winning ROW poem about speaking to the dead was powerful.\r

    I believe that my students' immersion in hearing, learning, reading and sharing poetry of many types "puts" a schema in their heads and enables them to write poems that often surprise and delight. From the east coast to you on the west I can see we have a kindred spirit with poetry. I will investigate your site more thoroughly later this week.\r

    Do you know Hal Urban's work? He's from the San Francisco area. I just met him and have just found his books, though our ideas are also in sync. He is really a wonderful and inspirational writer/teacher/presenter, though about "life lessons" and not poetry, though I see a similarity. \r

    Please tell Stephanie I loved her poem. I am on my way to the ocean in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and was also just in Maine.....I hope it doesn't rain so I can soak up some of that gold. Do you know the book by Amity Gaige We are a Thunderstorm, no longer in print? I find it to be very good to show kids what powerful free verse is like. She wrote it when she was 16. She is now a novelist and professor in New England.\r


    I want to