Thursday, February 24, 2011

In Praise of Memorization

I’ve been thinking lately about Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It fits the current Fredericton landscape perfectly: the snow lies two feet thick on the ground and I have to strap on snowshoes just to feed the backyard birds. But I think about this poem for another reason too: it’s an old friend, the first poem I fully memorized.

I did memorize another poem once. I chose Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler” as my challenge for a long-ago creative writing class taken at the Berkeley community college. Our teacher, poet Kim Addonizio, impressed on us the usefulness of this exercise, stressing the unique relationship we’d have with our memorized poem, its language soon to be embodied in ourselves. I duly memorized and recited and felt somehow improved, enlightened, as if I had rediscovered my underused powers of memory and were readying myself for the inhalation of numerous other examples of poetry great and small.

But Ondaatje’s poem didn’t stick, becoming instead a fond memory of something I once did, peripherally evocative as a distinctive colour or scent. I see the florescent-lit classroom hidden in one of the university buildings, I smell the distinctive waft of night-jasmine that hovered in the air as I left the class. But have I completely lost this poem? Strangely, as I read “The Cinnamon Peeler” to myself today, I hear the echo of my own voice in my head, as if the words existed simultaneously inside and outside my body.

In contrast, Frost’s poem has successfully established itself in my memory. Lines and passages have stayed with me since the age of eight. These apparent powers of retention amaze me, and I wonder, would I have had better long-term powers of memory if memorization had remained an ingrained part of the school curriculum? Would I now be able to stun my friends with my perfect recall of Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, and Dickinson, be able to provide a quote for any occasion?

Although the allure of performance provides one motive for internalizing poetry, it is the different relationship to language acquired through memorization that seems most desirable. I am fixated on the written word, yet many of the resonances and rhythms of poetic language can only be accessed through the voice. My most striking experience of a poet attuned to the power of orality came when I witnessed Galway Kinnell’s recitation (not reading) in San Francisco in the mid-90s. Unhitched from the page, his words seemed to spill up from the depths of his body, as if he were a vessel, an orator, an old-fashioned bard.

This may move a little too far into the territory of the mystical. Still, Kinnell’s performance exemplified the reason for memorization: leaving nothing between our selves and the words, taking poems literally “to heart.” Traditional as this practice is, Kim Addonizio was right. We should memorize poems, if not once a day, then once a year at least. Let’s designate that longed-for late-winter holiday as Poetry Memorization Day in New Brunswick: a day to refresh ourselves with words by taking a poem to heart.

Madeline Bassnett
Fiddlehead Poetry Editor