In a world that seems increasingly disturbing and even violent, we desperately need an antidote for our despair. We need a daily dose of beauty, and Pinterest and Instagram won’t suffice. We need something more powerful to hold on to. We need more poetry in our lives.
For this reason, every year my high school students memorize and publicly recite “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s a dragon of a poem, dangerous and beautiful, filled with archaisms and paradoxes, allusions and confusions.
Everything about this exercise is old-fashioned. The poem is about a shipwreck in 1875, written in poetic form that is difficult, winding, long, and lovely. The process of memorizing is arduous—it’s 280 lines to commit to memory—and the act of reciting seems antiquated, irrelevant to 21st-century life.
It’s not my only offense against modernity. I ask my students to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of lines of poetry—Shakespeare, Donne, Dante, Eliot, Dickinson, Shelley, Coleridge—and because of the contemporary backlash against “rote memorization,” I am often called upon to articulate my reasons.
We read poetry both for its utility and for its own sake. Poems work well as touchstone pieces in the classroom because they succinctly express ideologies, conceptions of beauty, historical and human concerns, developments in language and form, the values and stigmas of an age. We could say the same for all literature, but poetry is uniquely memorable.
Poems are arrangements of words that enchant and inspire even before they are understood, calling us out of the mundane into extraordinary perception. Great poems have mesmerizing language and stirring ideas: we feel before we understand. Poetry appeals to the ear in its musicality, appeals to the mind in its layered brevity, to the inner eye in its beauty, to the mouth in its delicious combination of syllables. It draws us to a unique enjoyment of language and images. The emotions inspired by the words challenge us to think and to act.
But why memorize? Cultivating mastery through rote methods is easy to undervalue: memorization requires time, discipline, effort, and repetition, and it seems particularly irrelevant since the advent of the iPhone. Slogging through the process, the effort hardly seems worthwhile in a world swimming in wifi, in which we are only a few taps or clicks away from vast repositories of poetry or data or ephemera, storehouses so voluminous that it is ludicrous to ask the human brain to compete. But the time, discipline, and effort required in memorization are the very things that make the experience valuable. Repetition and practice create habits, training the mind to work towards mastery.
And far beyond the value of the initial experience of memorizing, the poem itself produces riches in the mind. If it’s a doorway to awareness, a glimpse of permanent things, then the memorization of it helps us walk through it. Internalize the rhythms, the sounds, the weight of the words as they are wielded to create their magic, and the sense sinks in slowly. Something bright moves in the blood. Words that are luminous in the dark, in the draughty church at smokefall, if you come at night like a broken king; words opalescent, cool, and pearly, very violet-sweet; words that flame out, flaunt forth, catch fire, draw flame, gather to a greatness, and striding high there, settle in the slow falling of flakes and seas of liquid leaves.
- Recovering the Art of Poetry
- Kafka the Traditionalist
Memorize, and the poem ascends. It becomes an indwelling reality. The mental discipline involved in internalizing a poem is only the first step in a much more significant journey, for once the poem is memorized, we live with it and learn from it for the rest of our lives.
We remember the poetry we learned as children. My students have fantastic, beautiful cultural and literary artifacts engraved into their brains. They will never forget these, try as they might. And someday, they’ll have small revelations about the meaning, or live their way into an understanding that eluded them back in seventh or tenth or twelfth grade. The memorized poem becomes a sort of imprint on the brain, helping to mold thought, providing substance for contemplation, and creating expectations for what language should sound like.
This kind of magic is not just reserved for students. We can all benefit from more poetry in our lives. Because by memorizing poetry, we become more alive to the beauty of the language—and indeed the world—around us.
Dr. Ellen Condict teaches upper-level English at Hillsdale Academy, a K-12 liberal arts school, and at the collegiate level at Hillsdale College.