I have about twenty poems in my head, speeches from Hamlet and Macbeth, a couple of the Bard’s sonnets, a few by Frost, a few Dickinsons, Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” (the first free verse poem I memorized), Joy Harjo’s “Remember,” Auden, Shelley, pieces of “Ulysses,” and various others, including a few of my own.
They are good to recall when driving down a lonely road with only the bare trees and suicidal cows to watch out for. They are easy to bring up when I need evidence—and poetry is the best evidence . . . for anything—when speaking to people. It’s good to have some poems in your head.
A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts started one of the best programs they have ever been behind—Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation competition. I have coordinated this program at the last 2 schools I taught at. While a lot of kids don’t get enthused by memorizing poetry, enough of them still do.
In his article “In Defense of Memorization,” Michael Knox Beran said, “Without knowing it, a child who has learned a scrap of verse has been drawn into the civilizing interplay of music and language, rhythm and sound, melody and words.” Memorizing poetry is good for the mind, body, and soul. Read his whole article for all the evidence.
A student asked me why we read poetry the other day, and I said, “’So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee.’ Those are the last two lines of a 500-year-old poem, and look . . . it’s still alive, and so are the people in it. That’s why.”
Well, I didn’t convince him, but it was worth a try. The student who won our school’s Poetry Out Loud competition and will go on to the regional contest in February recited Poe’s “Israfel” and “The Ballad of Birmingham,” by Dudley Randall. Her third poem for regionals will be “Miniver Cheevy.” I think she could get through this life with the wisdom and beauty in just those three poems.