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The power of a memorized poem

Here are some wise and lovely thoughts on the deep value of memorizing poetry from NYU English professor Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.

It may be tempting to lament the passing of an era when one and all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge stored inside their heads, but the once-mandatory exercise was not universally beloved. For some, standing tongue-tied in front of mocking classmates and a threatening teacher when the words wouldn’t come was a hated and humiliating ordeal. For others — perhaps for the majority — it was just something to get through, a practice that meant little at the time, and still less later on.

But there’s a world of difference between being forced to memorize a poem and choosing to do it off one’s own bat. The pleasures of this exercise are many: It can be amusing or moving, challenging and satisfying, simple or profound. And sometimes it provides much more than pleasure.

Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie, Invictus, dwells upon the strength that Nelson Mandela drew from his memory of W.E. Henley’s poem during 27 years of captivity. And one of the most devastating chapters in If This Is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, records the moment when the author recites the Ulysses canto from the Inferno to a fellow inmate and understands for the first time the terrifying implications of Dante’s words. There are memoirs aplenty about the degradations of life in the Soviet gulag, in which survivors give thanks for the saving grace of Pushkin’s poetry committed to memory in happier days.

When everything else has been taken from you, a memorized poem remains. It is there to remind you of who you once were, who you are now, and who you might be. It is there to remind you that there is a world beyond the self, a world in which someone once joined word and word and word to make something that had never existed before, a world in which the possibility for change, for seeing differently, is always there. It is there to remind you that you are not alone. When you recite a poem, you are in conversation with another.

You don’t need to be in desperate circumstances to appreciate the power of the memorized poem. You don’t even need a power cut. Go on, try it. Consider beginning with a poem written in the first person—perhaps Thomas Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass,” Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility,” or those famous 16 lines by Henley. And then ask yourself: Where does the “I” of the poem end and your “I” begin?

— Catherine Robson, “Why Memorize a Poem?The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2012

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Image: “Young Man Reading by Candlelight” by Matthias Stom (fl. 1615–1649) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons