Besides dates and places and spelling words, I memorized the Gettysburg Address and bits of Shakespeare in high school. I don’t remember how I did it. But as a nursing student, I had to memorize the twelve cranial nerves in order. I still remember them and the rather inappropriate mnemonic we used.
My husband does not remember memorizing anything and is not convinced of its value since one can look up most anything. He did tell me that his dad had to memorize all 83 counties in Michigan, starting with Monroe at the southeast wrist of the mitten and zigzagging across the state to Keweenaw in the northern tip of the Upper Peninsula. He believes he probably could still recite them in his 80s. His dad also taught biology, and 20 years after he quit teaching, he still knew the common and Latin names of all the trees in the state.
The Tweetspeak Poetry team has been talking about their memorization memories. I’ve recently nosed around the Internet and used my Phone-A-Friend card to crowd-source what others think about memorization.
Glynn Young says he loved memorization when he was younger. He tucked away poems, speeches, multiplication tables, dialogue for plays, and even debate presentations. He had an English teacher who said, “You’re not educated unless you can recite at least one of Shakespeare’s soliloquies.” For Glynn, it was the dagger speech from Macbeth. He believes his experience plus being involved in debate and something like “expressive speech” played a formative role in becoming a speechwriter. “I associate memorization with learning,” he says. “We learn nursery rhymes and then recite them. We learn stories and learn to tell them . . . It’s a way to learn language, rhythm and cadence. I rarely memorize today,” he says, “and that is likely my loss.”
Rick Maxson says that for him, memorization depends on visualization. He has to “see” the persons or objects or scenes that he is committing to memory as he recites the words. In his years at the Oxford Theater in Los Angeles, he learned to use as many senses as possible to memorize dialogue. “I agree with Glynn that memorization can be a boon to writing well. And recitation allows ears to hear how words are put together, what they make you feel as you hear them.”
Heather Eure says memorizing a poem can help make a student a better writer and that reciting the same poem from memory teaches a student how to “float on words.” She memorized Antony’s monologue from Julius Caesar in high school but only hung onto it long enough to get an A on her recitation.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him . . .
Heather even sometimes uses Shakespeare in her science class. She tells her students before they think of asking permission to do something dangerous, to look up and memorize Act III, Scene III, verse 87 from Hamlet, which simply reads, “No.” She hopes it will be part of her legacy. She’s also contemplating #committingprufrock, maybe by trying a nifty tool like the Memorizer, though she fears starting strong and then rambling off in the middle with a similar rhyme, but completely different words, “like I’d somehow confuse Prufrock and the lyrics from a Rhianna song. Oh, the shame.” (Come on in, Heather. The water’s just fine.)
Donna Zukaitis Falcone admits that memorization is difficult for her these days, but when she sings, she believes the gift is better if it is memorized.
Bethany Rohde says that something that has helped her a bit when trying to memorize is to highlight the key starting words of a line or verse or certain trouble-causing words. She believes it gives her brain an extra light switch.
Lane Arnold says she remembers memorizing things like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the Constitution, “I wandered lowly as a cloud,” by Wordsworth, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Erikson’s stages of development, bits of Shakespeare—and the names of all of her 21 first cousins and eight aunts and uncles in order of age, and “once upon a memory,” all the states and capitals. She says song lyrics have staying power. She still likes to exercise her brain by memorizing scripture and uses an app called ScriptureTyper that utilizes the senses of hearing, vision, and touch. Because you can build your own verse library, maybe it’s possible to input other pieces of text as well.
I graduated from high school and nursing school with Becky. She remembers our cranial nerve meme and also that Mrs. Butcher, our English Literature teacher, insisted we memorize 40 lines of Hamlet. She could still recite them when her own kids were in high school. Another nursing school friend, Mary, can still recite Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride.
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
“I remember the entire poem,” she says, “but can’t remember where I set my phone down last.”
The funny thing is, as more people remember and share what they remember, it lights up my own brain, and I start to remember what I’ve forgotten. With a little prodding, Marie Ann remembered a few lines from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.”
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
And Ron, yet another high school friend (who worked as a lighthouse keeper for a few years after he retired) says his mother used to memorize poetry for fun when she was a young girl during the Depression. He remembers that she could still recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie.”
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay
An’ wash the cups and saucers up, an brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;
An’ all us other children, when the supper things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the moistest fun
A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Michelle Rinaldi Ortega finds memorization challenging. “I tend to remember impressions rather than details and substitute my own for what actually is.” She says multisensory cues help her: creating signs and gestures to go with them, drawing caveman figures, and tapping out rhythms. She likes to read out loud several times “to strengthen my weaker auditory memory skills.” She says “I get bogged down if I hear myself say it the wrong way because that can get stuck in my brain, too.”
Sharon Gibbs says she used to memorize a lot but thinks she’s gotten “lazier with age.” In school she memorized spelling words, U.S. presidents in chronological order, state capitals, and catechism. Three years ago she sat for a four-hour oncology certification exam and used associations and stories to remember symptoms, diagnostics, and side effects. She recited them and played them back when she drove to and from work. She also used index cards with questions on one side and answers on the other.
Frances Patterson said she was “pretty terrible” at memorizing as a kid. One year her homeschooling mom challenged Frances and her brother to learn the Gettysburg Address by Thanksgiving “or we couldn’t have Thanksgiving dinner.” She likes to record herself reading, then listen and say the words along with herself. Writing text on cards and scattering them around the house helps. She also uses a website that gives her the first letter of each word so she can print it out and use as a crutch.
Prasanta Verma Anumolu remembers memorizing the first ten lines of the Canterbury Tales in Old English in high school and can still recite the first four lines.
Whan that aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licuor
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Laura Brown is in favor of memorization, especially if committing music and literature to memory. Today I crown her the Memorization Queen. The only thing she remembers memorizing in grade school is the “Pledge of Allegiance.” But in sixth grade, for the fun of it, she memorized a Rudyard Kipling poem about a mother and baby seal. It was pretty easy, she says, because a tune for the poem popped into her head and the combination of words and music helped “embed it in my memory.”
Oh! Hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so gree.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, there soft be thy pillow;
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas.
In seventh grade she committed a bit of Prufrock and some of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in order to impress her teacher. In college she had to memorize Romans 12, which she says was stressful. She also tackled some of Robert Frost’s poems, again because “matching melodies presented themselves.” She memorized some other poets’ works, especially Wordsworth, because she loved the poems and read them over and over until they “stuck.” (Some though, she admits, have since become unstuck.) She has memorized play dialogues and a little of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, instrumental music and song lyrics.
“If you can set a poem (or any text) to music,” she says, “even if you have to make up the tune, it helps. And reading it aloud is essential.” She also reminds me, speaking of my husband and Glynn’s English teacher, that back in the day there was no Internet. “We were building neural pathways,” she said, “stocking our mental libraries, taking in things that might be a comfort or a tool years later, learning some of the things that make an educated person.”
Speaking of music and neural pathways, I’ve got to get back to singing along with Prufrock and memorizing “Eventide,” a harp solo.
Bonus: Mini Manifesto from Our Publisher, L.L. Barkat
Like Karen, I’m a huge fan of memorization, though I came late to the club. How huge, you ask? Let’s just say I’m out to start a grassroots movement called Commit Poetry. I’m totally serious about this, and I credit your bravery, Sandra, as being the initial spark.
When we asked you to “commit Prufrock” (as you ended up calling it), it was all in fun (I mean, look, we even made “belly badges” for you!). Of course, I want to keep fun in the center, but now I’m on a quiet mission, because what started in jest has sent me on a journey of discovery—and that goes far beyond that I just memorized four poems in a few weeks, two in Spanish!
Anyway, I found out that master chess players are no smarter than the average person—they’ve just spent more time memorizing moves. I found out that Peter of Ravenna (a 15th century jurist) memorized 20,000 legal points, a thousand texts by Ovid, two hundred of Cicero’s speeches and sayings, three hundred philosopher sayings, seven thousand scripture texts, and more. Had he ever been imprisoned or exiled, he could have entertained himself for years. (Gosh, I could just recite poems while I wait in line at the grocery store, to keep myself occupied, and that would have been worth the memorization effort, don’t you think?)
And I agree with Laura about flexing the mind to make it more supple in old age (or at least a comfort)—not because I’m feeling agreeable, but because it’s becoming clearer and clearer through scientific research that if we labor to put things in our minds, then our minds labor longer into our twilight years. Okay, before I write a book on this subject here at the end of your post, let me just say: watch out world (at least my world, to start). Poetry memorization is on its way. 🙂
Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, Sandra will update us on her progress and strategies for committing Prufrock. Stay tuned on Facebook and/or Twitter, where she’ll feature live video updates. We’ve given Sandra the option to Phone a Friend, so be prepared in case she calls on you to help with some Italian pronunciations or to learn a little about a part of the poem, or even to recite a stanza with her.
Want to commit Prufrock with Sandra? Download your own Committing Prufrock Poetry Dare Printable Barista Badges that you can cut out and color to celebrate all 15 sections as you memorize them. Tweet a photo with your badge to us at @tspoetry and use the hashtag #commitprufrock.
For further reading
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“This will be the main textbook for the poetry unit from now on.”