Instant Art: A case for memorization

I originally posted this on Oct. 9, 2012, but since people are still discovering the post – and because poetry & memorization in schools have been in the news of late – I thought I’d repost, it in case you hadn’t seen it…

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could wave a magic wand, and somehow “Poof!” call into existence a classic work of art?

Moreover, you could decide how that art would suit your mood – perhaps happy, or dark, or funny, or melancholy.

You already can.

“Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” – Edgar Allan Poe

Keeping those words in mind, consider this:

One may view a beautiful painting and later recall its basic image in their mind, but many of its details – the brushstrokes, the hues, etc. – will be lost.  One might be mesmerized by the taste and aroma of a magnificent meal, yet once it is eaten, only the memory of that meal remains.  However, when one reads a poem and then commits it to memory, the beautiful experience of reading and hearing those words can be immediately recalled and enjoyed in all its splendor at any time, anywhere, for as long as one can remember the words.

It’s like instant art!

If what Poe said is true, why would we not want to encourage more people, young and old, to develop their ability to bring forth this beauty, at will?

What has happened to memorization?

In high school, I had to memorize poetry from time to time in my various English classes.  My wife, who went to a private school, was required to memorize a different poem each week while in middle school.

Conversely, my daughters went through 12 years of schooling each and were rarely required to memorize anything by rote other than basic academics like multiplication tables, the Periodic Chart, and US history timeline.  Memorization of poetry was sadly deficient.  Fortunately, they loved reading, writing, and music – and had a father who obviously wrote a great deal of poetry – so they all ended up memorizing a few poems outside of their classes’ syllabi.

Now that I have a two-year-old, though, I wonder what he will be taught – or not taught.

It seems like memorization has been slowly disappearing in schools over the past half-century, and I’m not sure why.  Long before they enter school, children like my little dude learn the joy of putting sounds together, whether those sounds are from favourite songs, TV shows, or nursery rhymes.  Although a toddler may not know whether Black Sheep has any wool, or how much wool can fit inside three bags, or even how many ‘three’ is, he or she can fell the cadence and enjoy the sounds the words make when put together.  If you then read William Blake’s “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright…” to that same child, he or she might subconsciously notice both poems utilize the same rhythm, before you do.

(Although I just told you, so you might not be able to test that.  Dang.)

My point is, memorization has its benefits, and it’s a shame we don’t use this form of teaching more often.  Say what you will about learning things by rote, but if we’re going to place as much emphasis on language and visual arts as we do on social studies and mathematics, there should be a place for memorization…and not just memorizing the words but, when age-appropriate, what they mean and how to read them.

Learning leads to memorization.  Or is it the other way around?

I know many educators who feel that as a student learns something, he or she will remember what they learn.  That may be true, but the reciprocal is also true; memorize, and you will also learn.  Rhythm, rhyme, tense, order, and myriad other concepts are difficult to teach adults, much less kids…but the more one memorizes poetry, from “I am Sam / Sam I am” to “How shall I compare thee,” the more one starts to appreciate and understand these things.  This helps not just in writing poetry, but any type of creative writing.

Poetry is immensely diverse when it comes to subject matter, too; one can find dozens if not hundreds of poems on nearly any subject.  Given the opportunity, students can learn about poetic forms and devices on their own terms, to a degree.

For example, one of the few times my now 20-year-old was asked to memorize something was when she was in middle school, and was given the task of memorizing a favourite poem.  She loved cats, so she looked through a few books and decided upon the modern classic, “Fog,” by Carl Sandburg:


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

But in her search for a poem to memorize, she also fell in love with several other poems, including Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat” (one of my favourites).  In this case, a memorization assignment served to teach her lessons before she even began memorizing anything.  Plus, she had now experienced two very different approaches to the same subject: one was a free verse poem about fog using the cat as a metaphor, while the other was structured rhyming verse about a human experience involving a member of the family.

What to do??

Kids love music, and when they hear something that catches their ear, their mind is like the proverbial steel trap.  It gets stuck in there, and they won’t let go of it.  Heck, my two-year-old sings a couple of Eric Church songs all the way through, without music!  There is a rhythm and repetition that he enjoys, and even though he doesn’t understand the lyrics, he is learning how to put words together in a rhythmic pattern.

Likewise, one of the great things about poetry – especially classic poetry, with its proper meter and structured rhyme schemes – is that it is structured and can be almost musical.  Tying together the musicality and lyricism of poetry with art, history, language, and social studies seems obvious.  The more connections we can help our children make between these things the more apt they are to remember what they learn.

Twenty years after Paul Revere made his famous ride in 1775, Samuel Taylor Coleridge met William Wordsworth, in 1795.  Five years later, in 1800, Napoleon conquered Italy.  At the same time, the Romantic period of visual art was just beginning in Europe.  And of course, how can one imagine England in the early 1800’s without Dickens or Austen?  Personally, I can’t imagine it without Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” published in London in 1819.

And you know who was an 11-year-old schoolboy living in London at that very time?

Edgar Allan Poe.

Poetry Friday: The sequel to Tuesday’s post

I have several favourite poems, but one stands out more than all the others.

Interestingly, however, it’s not exactly a poem.

If you had a chance to read my post on Tuesday , you know how much I value memorization of poetry.  It had a profound effect on me, as I developed my love of poetry – and began my journey as a writer of poetry – only after reading the classic works of people like Shakespeare, Shelley, and Chaucer.  It is the latter I am featuring today.

It was in 9th or 10th grade – I don’t recall exactly – that my British Lit teacher, Mrs. Jencks, gave us a memorization project.  We were in the process of reading early- and middle-English verse literature (like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) when she told us we would need to memorize the first 18 lines of the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  We could choose either the original middle-English version or a contemporary translation, and each one of us would recite it before the entire class and have it recorded onto cassette tape so we could listen back to it.

Ah yes, the good ol’ days – when embarrassing students by making them perform in front of the class was a standard part of the curriculum.

Being an actor even then, I had no qualms about doing anything in front of the class, and since I always liked to take the road less travelled, I opted for the middle-English version; it was, after all, the way the writer had intended it to be read, and it had been written so beautifully I couldn’t bear to do the injustice of committing to memory a pale reproduction of the original.  (Yes, I realize there are some beautiful translations out there – along with some less-than-impressive ones – but none can compare to Chaucer’s words)

So…getting back to Tuesday’s post…all this talk about memorization got me to thinking about the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  I recited it to myself, wondering if I could still remember it.  Sure enough, I did.

So I present to you this Poetry Friday, two firsts for my fledgling blog:  the first poem I’ve featured that is not my own, and the first time I’ve posted audio.  (A number of people have suggested I should record a poem; being a voiceover artist, I’m not sure what took me so long, but I thought it was a good idea!)  The pronunciations are close but probably not perfect – but I’m basing this reading on a recitation I performed from somewhere in the mid-’80’s – so try, if you can, to cut me some slack.  😉

Hope you like it!  And for the rest of the Poetry Friday posts from across the interweb, Amy at The Poem Farm has rounded them all up for you!  Feel free to click the link below to play the audio and follow along with the text.  The player shouldopen up in a new window, but if it doesn’t, just right click the link and select ‘Open in New Window.’  (And if you’re not sure of a particular word or phrase, click here for a modern-day translation!)

Chaucers CT Prologue – Matt Forrest Esenwine vx (10-8-12)

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue
By Geoffrey Chaucer, 1340–1400

Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.