If you’ve read Joe Kirby’s blog, you’ll have been impressed by just how many literary quotes and anecdotes he is able to leverage in making his case. In person, Joe has a similarly remarkable ability to reference quotes from literature or poetry that apply to whatever we are discussing – he is not ‘just Googling it.’ What always resonates with me is how over the centuries men and women have been tackling many of the same issues we still do today; there is a vast repository of human intellectual knowledge and inquiry already available to us. For many of those who wrote before, their words have stood the test of time because they have been considered to hold enduring value. How is it then that Joe is so easily able to reference the wise words of those who went before? Joe was privately educated, and at his school there was an expectation to memorise certain poems and literary passages; not only ‘study’, or ‘understand’ them – to vaguely recall something about the sense of the poem and possibly reference it again at some point if time allowed and will prevailed – but to memorise them as well. It’s resulted in an enviable command of both the English language and our literary heritage.
The wise words of those who went before
In the previous post I talked about the barriers I’ve personally faced in appreciating poetry, and I expect that those barriers will be familiar both to other adults, and to children in school. I had grown to appreciate music and art so much more having studied their history; I have a series of similar lectures on poetry, and hoped to finally achieve the same kind of success in what had for me become ‘the final frontier.’ For now, those lectures remain unvisited.
Three months ago a friend showed me an app for iOS published by Penguin, ‘Poems by Heart’. It uses chunking plus a few other tricks to help us memorise poems. My friend seemed to be having some success, so I gave it a go. The first two poems are William Blake’s Eternity and Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee. Blake’s is very short, yet still troublesome to memorise first time round. Shakespeare’s was significantly harder, taking at least a couple of hours, and it may well have been longer still. Going through the process, I found a number of interesting things start to happen. First, the process of memorisation forced me to slow down! One of my problems is that I want to read and immediately understand something. When I don’t, I skim it once or twice again, maybe pick out some vague meaning, call it a success or brusquely declare that it’s all meaningless anyway, and move on. Now, my goal had shifted. My goal wasn’t to ‘understand’ Shakespeare’s poem, because really, how on Earth would I measure that? How on Earth would I know when I had ‘understood’ the poem, and was good to move on? I couldn’t, no-one could, ‘understanding’ is shifting and ethereal; not something easily measured. Memorising on the other hand is eminently measurable. My goal was clear, and I was determined to succeed in it, so I took the time.
A clear goal makes progress transparent, and perseverance possible
Next, the app is designed so that on the first few goes around it missed only a few choice words, and it gives you options to fill the blanks, often including words that are similar in meaning. In Shelley’s Ozymandias for example, to fill in the following blanks:
I ___ a traveller from an ____ land
Options might include
Ancient Met Antique Threw Old Saw
Although ‘ancient land,’ ‘antique land,’ and ‘old land’ might all fit in terms of meaning, obviously only one is correct. This leads to some interesting thoughts, which start along the lines of ‘Ah, exactly which one was it again…’ and then on to ‘Ah yes, antique land. Wait, why antique? Why didn’t he just say ‘ancient,’ that still would have fit the meter…’ Well precisely, why did Shelley choose that particular word, when so many others would do! I don’t know, but suddenly the thought occurs to me for the first time, and it’s fun speculating. So what’s happening now? Well I’m naturally spending all the more time thinking about the poem, and this not only leads to a stronger memory of it, but it’s going to dovetail nicely into greater understanding.
Thank you Penguin Classics
Next up, I found I began to deliberately search for meaning in the lines. The process of memorising by rote was a reasonable start, but there were lines I would always struggle with. They tended to be the lines whose meaning I least understood, so I would now make a point to spend yet more time pondering the meaning of each line. One example I already gave in the previous post:
And every fair from fair sometime declines
I had no idea what Shakespeare was talking about. Once I finally puzzled it out it was easier to recall. A similar example of this would be Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘untrimmed’ in this line that follows:
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed
No idea what he meant. Eventually it occurred to me that he meant ‘assuming nature’s changing course is untrimmed,’ as in ‘not cut short.’ So now, ‘what does he mean by nature’s changing course?’ and I finally make the connection between the two lines, which essentially read:
And everything that is beautiful will eventually fade from beauty, either due to some unfortunate freak accident, or simply by natural decline, assuming you don’t die first.
Not so poetic, but now I understood the meaning of those two lines, I could better remember them both, and would now recite them together. Hang on… I started just trying to memorise a poem, but now suddenly I find myself worrying about its meaning… This was important: through beginning with the simple aim to memorise a poem, I found that I wanted to understand its meaning; perhaps even needed to. Who wants to have a head filled with meaningless words? I started with a clear goal to memorise, and that in turn led to a natural desire to understand. As that desire grew, I found I’d spend days recalling an already memorised poem, thinking about it some more, and divining further and further meaning from it. I would discuss it with friends who had studied the poems in great detail, and from them I would learn more still. As I continued through everyday life something would happen that reminded me of a poem, and I drew yet another connection, yet more meaning. Had I started with the objective ‘to understand Shakespeare’s poem’ I would never have known when I had ‘understood’ it, and if I thought I had, I guess I may have stopped, happy that I had succeeded, and then never bothered to think about it again. On the other hand, by starting with memorisation, a flame of intellectual curiosity had been ignited, and burned brighter as it was fanned by each new insight. I would never stop trying to understand the poem, because clearly that process will never end – it feels to me now that it isn’t so much a binary relationship of ‘not understanding vs. understanding’ as it is a spectrum from ‘lesser understanding to greater understanding.’ This might be an obvious statement to more experienced practitioners, but as an aside, I wonder what the implications of this are for both teaching and assessment; should we ever have ‘understanding’ as a primary aim, when it is so slippery? Should we ever aim for assessment of understanding? But then of course ‘understanding’ is a desirable trait… so I’m not sure really where that leaves us for now, what the right step is. Should ‘understanding’ be an implied objective, with understanding to be improved over weeks and months as layer upon layer of related knowledge and meaning are constructed, but never a lesson objective per se?
Understanding is a slippery concept
…or possibly ‘Stop! Hammer time.’
To this moment, I’ve memorised the following:
- William Blake – Eternity
- Shakespeare – Shall I Compare Thee
- Shakespeare – My Mistress’ Eyes
- Percy Shelley – Ozymandias
- Horace Smith – Ozymandias (comparing these two is fascinating!)
- Emily Dickinson – My Letter to the World
- Rudyard Kipling – If
- Shakespeare – Prologue to Romeo and Juliet
- Edgar Allen Poe – The Raven
- William Yeats – The Second Coming
Has it had any benefit? Lots!
First, it gets easier. While it took several hours to memorise the first few poems, more recent poems of similar size have taken as little as twenty minutes. I seem to be finding it easier because I’m growing more accustomed and familiar with the structures and language. The more I learn, the less thinking I have to do in terms of deciphering the meaning of the poems, and this is all after memorising what remains a relatively short list of poems. This means I can learn even more, in less time: the so-called Matthew Effect.
Second, like Joe I’ve already found opportunity to reference these few poets on numerous occasions. Sometimes it’s been in writing, and it would explain the occasional poetic references in my blog. Other times they’ve proven relevant to whatever was happening in life; a friend was once frustrated that something she’d written in a blog was being misrepresented in the comments. My response was ‘if you can bear to hear the words you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools…’ My intention wasn’t to be flippant, nor to be cocky; we were both in the process of memorising that particular poem at the time, and I knew she would recognise the reference, and through Kipling’s long enduring message that we stand stalwart when met with adversity, I was able to say so much more in those few words than I could have done otherwise. It had the bonus effect of meaning we turned the conversation towards something more pleasant, rather than wallowing in frustration.
Yesterday a few people in the office, where I’m working over the summer, remarked at the size and intimidatingly confident nature of a particularly large seagull that landed on a ledge right outside our windows. As it strutted along the ledge, deliberate, alert, beak held high, I was reminded of Poe’s raven, and thought of the bird as having ‘mien of Lord or Lady.’
Following all this, it feels as though these poems are not merely ‘things I once read;’ they’re the enduring words of those who went before us, struggling with many of the same challenges we face, and I carry them now within me. I own them, they are a part of me, and I can exercise the choice to use them as I see fit.
Third, I’ve found it improves my writing, at least in the sense that it gives me access to a wider repertoire from which to draw inspiration. In the previous post I wrote:
It’s not just the dead white men with their antique language…
My usual mode would have been to write ‘archaic’ or possibly ‘antiquated.’ I was able to choose ‘antique’ on this occasion only because I have Shelley’s poem in mind; I would never have thought to use the word in this way otherwise. Now, we can argue over which word works best, but what is undeniable is that the memorisation has empowered me with a greater range of vocabulary and stylistic choice that I had before.
A traveller from an antique land
Finally, I went to my first professional poetry reading a few weeks back, by Felix Dennis. The one thing I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dennis is a brilliant performer, and in their performance I enjoyed his poems. This is entirely novel for me; I have never before taken much of anything from people reading poetry. There’s something to be said now for the nature of the poems. In hearing them only once, and having spent no time thinking about them, I couldn’t possibly speak to the complexity of his poetry, or how it compares to the ‘Dead Greats’ I mentioned previously. Were his poems easier to understand, like Mali’s spoken-word? Did I simply enjoy it more because it was a professional, live, performance? Was there less information density in his poetry? I don’t have the answer to any of those questions, but either way, I was able to enjoy it, and went in there ready to enjoy it. For me, this is a very new experience.
These are just the few pragmatic benefits I can think of off the top of my head; improved capacity for further memorisation, carrying the messages within us, and improved literacy. This is all before we even start thinking about the simple joy and pleasure to be had in recalling these poems, or the technical challenge of comparing form, structure, rhyme, rhythm and so forth, or the showmanship of performance poetry.
Conclusion: To me, it seems there is something very, very special about actually memorising a poem. Although my ability to read over and appreciate a new poem may have been enhanced, it still doesn’t compare to what I take from that poem after memorising it. Memorisation is a clear and distinct goal, one which is naturally aided by seeking out the meaning of the poem. This isn’t a dry and dolorous assemblage of rote knowledge; it is a rich and active process of building and connecting memories to form meaning.
Next time – but should we force kids to memorise poems?