“An art of opening the heart”: this is a nice way of capturing the extra-intellectual aspects of memorizing poetry. To memorize something effectively, you have to expend some interpretive effort on it, and with this effort you wind up in something like a conversation with the text. Grasping at least the literal meaning–not necessarily as easy as you might think, I’ve learned in my teaching–is the most efficient way of mastering a poem, so you can’t help but learn something more than just the words in the process. And the richer the text, the more there is to absorb. It’s sad that such a truly mind-expanding practice has been saddled with a reputation as just the opposite.
At school, as a child, I memorized Bible verses. I’ve long since abandoned fundamentalist Christianity, but the words I learned stay with me. They surface at strange times, like bits of songs, or memories.
Last week on the train some women next to me fretted over the impermanence of the Internet and our culture’s “disappearing knowledge.” Never mind that it bore no relation to their conversation, and that the prospect of Christ’s return no longer comforts me as it did in elementary school — I thought of Corinthians 13:8-12:
….whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face…
These days I find I memorize poems and prose passages by accident. I’ve read Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Miroslav Holub’s “What Else” so many times that the words and structure stick with me. In other cases I remember pieces. From Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry,” for instance, there’s the speaker “romp[ing] with joy in the bookish dark,” the dogs “on the stairs and coming up,” the librarian who “does not believe what she sees” and walks with “her hands in her dress.”
On the phone last night, I was talking with an old friend in Florida about the book I’m (since Canada, mostly theoretically) writing. I tried to describe Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, one of the most psychological, but still realistic, novels I know. But as I talked snippets of the novel’s first page washed over me. Other, random parts filled my head. When we hung up, I had to see the opening paragraph, to remember the parts I’d forgotten:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who — when he has been seriously noted at all — has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’
As I read, I thought — and not for the first time — that perhaps I’d become a better writer if I just sat down and typed out the novel, word for word. After all, one of my former writing professors talked openly of dissecting Greene’s The Power and the Glory in order to construct one of his early novels.
Michael Knox Beran argues (in City Journal) that:
memorizing poetry turns on kids’ language capability…. The student who memorizes poetry will internalize the rhythmic, beautiful patterns of the English language. These patterns then become part of the student’s “language store,” those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking. Without memorization, the student’s “language store,” Bauer says, will be limited: memorization stocks “the language store with a whole new set of language patterns.”
So forget the typing. Clearly I’ll just have to memorize the whole book.