In the fifteen years I have taught poetry-writing for a living, the only thing I’ve always done in every class is make students memorize poems. From Introduction to Poetry Writing to the graduate workshop, it’s a non-negotiable requirement. I warn them on the first day.
The poem must be at least 14 lines long, previously published, no song lyrics. They must judge it a great poem worthy of the effort. “Find one you love so much you want it to be part of your bodies, ” I tell them. “A piece of art you want to own.”
I tell them that people used to say “commit, ” as if memorization were a physical act, like a crime, or a leap of faith. “In high school, I once committed The Raven.”
Long before that, Plato and St. Paul used a phrase that gets translated “written on the heart” to refer to memorization.
I tell them they must get the poem down cold, so they will be able to stand up in a crowded bus or bar and recite it with confidence if necessary. I tell them memorization is the best way to get to know a poem: to internalize its rhythms, grasp its diction and syntax, and understand its structure and movement from beginning to end. I tell them committing a poem is a form of self love, like buying yourself a gift, only better. And no one can take it away from you.
When recitation days arrive, they silently write their poems out by hand, word for word, and then one by one, stand and deliver, with a neighbor holding the handwritten script. Usually there is Frost, Bukowski, and Plath. Once a shy kid in a ball cap who had barely ever talked presented the entire “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to our stunned silence. Another time a goth girl in lace-up boots said all of Robert Service’s “The Highwayman.” Often a sassy chick will boast Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” or Lucille Cliffton’s “Hips.” Usually someone drags out a Shel Silverstein favorite from childhood. Last semester, a student from Indonesia recited a classic pantoum in Malay, then in translation.
We were enchanted that morning, as always, when students take the assignment seriously and present their poems well. We were in the presence of embodied poetry—Robert Pinsky’s message when he was poet laureate: the human voice is the proper instrument for the poem. But it’s more than that. It is a gesture of intimacy and vulnerability to share with others what you truly love.
In a world where students sit beside one another in classrooms and text message remote acquaintances, these students must risk enough to stand and physically present something they prize to their peers. The class listens very hard, willing the next line to come smoothly, eager to see and praise the treasure this person loved enough to commit.