Poetry News

Brad Leithauser Remembers Memorizing Poems

By Harriet Staff

Over at the New Yorker, Brad Leithauser reminds us of the value of memorizing poems. We like memorizing poems. Right now we're working on this one. It's one of our favorites to read, but lord it's rough-going to memorize! Anyhow, asides aside, Leithauser starts off with a reason to memorize that you don't hear all that often:

In what would have been my prime recitation years had I been born in an earlier era—junior high and high school—little memorization was required of me. But in early boyhood I did a fair amount of it. My mother, who had literary ambitions, paid me a penny a line to memorize poems. The first one I mastered was Tennyson’s “The Eagle” (“He clasps the crag with crooked hands”), which brought in a haul of six cents. Opportunistically, I moved on to the longer “Casey at the Bat” (“It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day”) and Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (whose title I mispronounced for decades), which netted me fifty-two cents and twenty-four cents respectively. Some Longfellow, some Frost. I straggled through Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and enough of his “The Ancient Mariner” to purchase a couple of candy bars.

It sounds whimsical and entertaining now, but I suspect some dead-serious counsel lay behind my mother’s beaming encouragement. I think she was tacitly saying, “Stick with poetry—that’s where the money is.”

It turned out to be levelheaded advice. Today, I pay my bills by talking to my students about poetry, and about stories and novels and essays—ultimately, about memorable cadences, about the music that occasionally lifts off of words carefully deployed on a page.

Leithauser turns his attention to Catherine Robson’s new book Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, to Joseph Brodsky (whose classroom etiquette included chain smoking and 1000-line memorization assignments), and then to a few familiar reasons for memorizing poems.

Memorized poems are a sort of larder, laid up against the hungers of an extended period of solitude. But today we are far less solitary than we were even a few years ago. Anyone equipped with a smartphone—many of my friends would never step outdoors without one—commands a range of poetry that beggars anything the brain can store. Let’s say it’s a gorgeous afternoon in October. You’re walking through a park, and you wish to recall—but can’t quite summon—the opening lines of Keats’ “To Autumn.” With a quick tap-tap-tap, you have it on your screen. You’re back in the nineteenth century, but you’re also in the twenty-first, where machine memory regularly supplants and superannuates brain memory.

So why undergo the laborious process of memorizing a poem these days, when—tap, tap, tap—you have it at your fingertips? Has this become another outmoded practice? When I was a Boy Scout, in the sixties, I spent some hours trying to learn Morse code and even, on a couple of overly sunny, headachey afternoons, trying to communicate by flag semaphore. Some things were meant to disappear. (And many of my students wish that assignments to memorize poems would follow them.)

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

Seems we've heard that before, but it's still good advice. Memorize away. You too could have "mentally cross-fertilized with defective aural lobotomies" in your heart!