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WILL_RECITE_POETRY_DUBLIN by Richard Abrams, M.D.After my last post about the value of memorizing poetry, a reader requested a list of great poems to memorize for the summer.

 

 

 

 

My list is short:  the greatest poem to memorize for the summer is a poem you love.

Runcible by ART NAHPRO

a runcible spoon

 

Love is why children memorize Mother Goose rhymes.  Love is why poetry critic David Orr’s father wanted to hear Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” over and over as he lay dying of cancer.  (That poem tops my list of poems to memorize, by the way.  It fairly trips off the tongue.  And as Orr’s father put it, “I really like the runcible spoon.”)

 

Most of us have memorized more poems than we imagine, if you include limericks and jump rope rhymes, and in my household, the Little Willie poems (children love these gruesome poems).  If you want to stick with nonsense and rhyme, try Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”   It’s plain old fun to say out loud:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

  The frumious Bandersnatch!”

(In a poetry-recitation contest I once held, a student recited all of “Jabberwocky” with a growly Scottish accent.  He won, hands down.)

The Golden Books Family Treasury Of Poetry $48 by jasperjade

 

The best resource for kids or adults memorizing poetry is The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry.  I grew up with that book, spent hours flipping through the 400 poems and looking at the illustrations.  You can still order it from Barnes and NobleTreasury, and indeed it is, has such gems as Ogden Nash’s “Introduction to Dogs” (still funny), classics for memorizing like Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (Listen my children and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere), lots of Lear, some Dickinson, Whitman, Bishop, and plenty of silly poems children love.

 

On the web there’s an enormous list of poems to memorize at Poetry Out Loud.  Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for high school students.

 

That should be all you need for the summer, but still, I’ll make you a list.

 

Poem Elf’s List of Poems for Memorizing

 

1.  For a first-time ever memorizing experience:  “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge.   This little poem is a cinch to memorize and exceedingly useful, like a breath mint or Kleenex, for times you need to start afresh.  I’ll reprint it rather than link it to encourage memorization:

Every day is a fresh beginning,

Listen my soul to the glad refrain.

And, spite of old sorrows

And older sinning,

Troubles forecasted

And possible pain,

Take heart with the new day and begin again.

(FYI, I wrote that from memory.  Just needed to check on the punctuation.)

 

2.  For summer:  Yeats’ “The Isle of Lake Innisfree.”   It’s fairly short, it’s broken up into stanzas, it rhymes and the sounds are so pleasurable they’re like caramels in your mouth.

 

3.  For fall:  “Spring and Fall to a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Another poem that trips off the tongue.

 

4.  In preparation for Dec. 21, 2012 (the Mayan calendar end-of-the-world date): Yeats’ “Second Coming.”  Worth memorizing for its many unforgettable lines:  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

 

5.  For when you’ve got a Burt Bacharach “I just don’t know what to do with myself” kind of moment:  Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans.”  You’ll settle down when you can say to yourself, “Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,/House without air, I leave you and lock your door.”

 

6.  For a middle-aged crisis and for a quick feeling of accomplishment:  A.E. Housman’s “With Rue My Heart is Laden.”  Effortlessly memorized and timeless.

 

7.  For a challenge:  T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s long, but it’s musical.  (Since my last my last post, I’ve memorized the first part.)   Or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”  And Anthony Hecht’s parody of that poem, “Dover Bitch.”

 

8.  To impress:  any of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Imagine being called on for a toast at a friend’s birthday party and being able to pull out these lines from Sonnet 104:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,


For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,


Such seems your beauty still.

 

This list could be endless, but I’ll stop myself here.

 

Anyone have some favorites they’ve memorized?  How have they come in handy?

 

 

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IProud to be British by gracust’m an Anglophile.  I like repression, I suppose, depth under calm facades.  My favorite writers—Austen, Dickens, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jane Gardam, David Mitchell, Barbara Pym, Andrea Levy to name a few—have always been Brits, and now my favorite education secretary—if one can admit to such pedantic tastes—is English as well.

Michael Gove visits Wellsway School in Keynsham by educationgovuk

 

British education secretary Michael Gove has announced an overhaul of his country’s primary school education that includes the memorization of poems by children starting at age five.  (You can read the rest of his plan here.)  How marvelous, and how much more useful and important than learning techniques to pass standardized tests.  Salon writer Laura Miller writes an excellent essay calling on the U.S. to follow suit.

 

I’ve gone through periods of memorizing poems myself, regretfully none of them as a student, and after reading the benefits listed in Miller’s article and being inspired by Jeffrey of my last post, I’m going to start again.  I usually turn to Yeats for memorizing, but maybe I’ll try Keats for the summer.  Or maybe something long by Wordsworth.

 

 

In an interview many years back the brilliant literary critic Helen Vendler spoke about the importance of memorizing poetry.  And not just the kind of bland, crappy poetry about snowmen and falling leaves that shows up on classroom bulletin boards, but really good poetry.  Preach it, Helen, preach it:

 

2. Czesław Miłosz Festival by Krakow Festival OfficeCole (former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole): You talked about memorizing poetry. People in the past memorized long patches of poetry, right? This is not happening anymore, is it?

Vendler: There are many things that aren’t happening that would make the study of poetry natural to children. First of all, poetry should be taught from the beginning with good poems, not bad poems, and it should be surrounded by a lot of related language arts—-memorizing and reciting and choral recitation and choral singing and all those things that feed into the appreciation of poetry.

Right now what teachers mostly do is have the children write poems. This is distressing to me, because they don’t write good poems.

Cole: They don’t have many examples, right?

Vendler: No. My colleague, Jorie Graham, insists that her writing class memorize every week. She has added an extra hour for memory and recitation, because, as she tells them, would-be poets can’t possibly write out what they haven’t taken in.

Cole: I wonder if the skills of memorization have slackened. Since that is not a part of most people’s mental furnishings, it’s just much harder.

Vendler: It all depends on cultural values. If you can make schoolchildren in China memorize four thousand characters, you can make schoolchildren memorize anything. Indeed, they memorize on their own all kinds of baseball statistics or popular songs. It’s not as though they don’t have memories and that the memories can’t be activated. It’s just a question of will, whether we want to include that as an important part of the curriculum.

Cole: Right. And value.

Vendler: I’ve been told that in Japan everybody, before leaving high school, memorizes the hundred great poems in the canon. So of course it can be done. Children’s minds are enormously active and retentive.

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