Modern Australian

why memorising poetry still matters for human connection

  • Written by Veronica Alfano, Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

Memorising poetry was once common in classrooms. But it has, for the most part, gone out of style. There are good reasons for this.

Memorisation can clash with creativity and analytical thought. Rote learning can be seen as mindless, drone-like, something done without really thinking about why we’re doing it and what the thing we memorise might mean.

In other words, it can be counterproductive to learn a poem by heart without understanding its content, knowing anything about its author or historical context, or asking what specific aspects of its language make it powerful and appealing.

Literature instructors tend to focus more on showing students how to conduct careful textual analysis than on having them reproduce poetic lines word-for-word. Analytical skills are crucial, and educators should continue to emphasise them.

Read more: Hooked on the classics: literature in the English curriculum

But there is great value in memorisation as well. Internalising a poem need not be a rote process. Done right, in fact, it is an intellectual exercise that illuminates the structure and logic of the text.

Nevermore, evermore, nothing more

A teacher might prompt his or her class to reflect on which patterns of sound (such as rhyme, meter or alliteration) serve as memory aids, asking how these patterns interact with the narrative arc of the poem.

Let’s imagine a student sets out to memorise Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Here are two lines from that poem:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

Someone searching for memorable patterns in the language would probably pay close attention to Poe’s internal rhyme: “uncertain” gives us “curtain,” and “thrilled me” prompts “filled me”.

But that same student might also struggle to keep the exact phrasing of the stanzas’ final lines straight, given that all eighteen of them conclude with “nevermore”, “evermore” or “nothing more”.

why memorising poetry still matters for human connection Most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears. kalpesh patel/Unsplash

This could generate a conversation about the role of repetition in the poem – for instance, perhaps it reflects the obsessive and confused mindset of Poe’s speaker.

Students tasked with memorising poems are often required to speak them aloud as a test of mastery. This, too, has its benefits. Reciting a poem can provide a deep and visceral understanding of its linguistic strategies (think of all those rustling “s” sounds in “silken, sad, uncertain”).

Read more: Victorian women poets of WW1: capturing the reverberations of loss

And when saying the poem aloud, you can hear another consciousness speaking in the cadences of your own voice. Counting out the beats of each line, you may feel the poem’s metrical pulses in your tapping fingers and toes.

In this way, the poem becomes an embodied experience and not merely a printed object.

A rich mental resource

True, reading a poem aloud rather than memorising and reciting it can have similar effects to all those above. But performing that poem without the distracting mediation of the page helps incorporate it more thoroughly into mental life.

In doing so, you can enact the way in which many poems – even as they give voice to a sensibility outside our own – also appeal to us precisely because they seem to articulate our unuttered thoughts and feelings. Reciting a poem without reading it can make it feel like it’s just you talking, not necessarily somebody else.

why memorising poetry still matters for human connection Memorising poetry provides a rich mental resource of beautiful phrases. Daniel Hansen/Unsplash

Few of us have dealt with an ominous raven perching in our chambers, but most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.

Memorising poetry, then, is also a kind of long-term investment. To take a poem with us so we can truly know it, we must know it by heart.

When we commit poems to memory, we internalise a voice that may comfort or inspire us in the future. We create a rich mental resource that lets us summon compelling, evocative, finely-crafted language at exactly the moment when it is most relevant to our emotional lives.

Such language both illuminates and is illuminated by our experiences. Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday” begins with these lines:

My heart is like a singing bird

Whose nest is in a watered shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit.

For a school child who learns Rossetti’s poem, such metaphors may not be particularly meaningful. But if she carries those lines in her mind over the years, they are likely to take on fresh significance.

If later in life she falls in love or has an intense spiritual experience, they may help her articulate her feelings to herself. Perhaps on a snowy day she will think of Charles Wright’s words: “Things in a fall in a world of fall […]”.

Read more: Friday essay: garish feminism and the new poetic confessionalism

Perhaps the arrival of a child will remind the former student of Sylvia Plath’s “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”.

Understanding our own sentiments through someone else’s words can provide a thrilling sense of connection, of shared humanity across time and space.

There are certain intellectual advantages to having a wealth of information at our fingertips at all times. But the vast resources that smart phones provide can’t make the beauties and insights of poetic language part of our everyday perspective on the world and fine-tune our emotional vocabulary in the process.

For that, we must still memorise.

Authors: Veronica Alfano, Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

Read more http://theconversation.com/ode-to-the-poem-why-memorising-poetry-still-matters-for-human-connection-121622

NEWS

Albanese promises a 'productivity project' in an economic vision statement harking back to Hawke and Keating

Anthony Albanese puts a “productivity project” at the centre of his economic agenda in the second of his “vision statements”, which seeks to further distance him from the Shorten era.“Productivity...

Friday essay: George Eliot 200 years on

A portrait of George Eliot at 30 by Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade. Her masterpiece Middlemarch is often claimed to be the greatest novel in the English language.Wikimedia CommonsMary Ann Evans took...

Vital Signs. Untaxing childcare is a bold idea that seems unfair, but might benefit us all

Win-win? No-one would be worse off under the UNSW proposal. Over time it should pay for itselfShutterstockAustralia’s system of childcare support is pretty good. It ensures high-quality care is provided...

Five ways parents can help their kids take risks – and why it’s good for them

Have real conversations with your kids about what they're doing, and the potential consequences of their actions.from shutterstock.comMany parents and educators agree children need to take risks. In one US...

a short, shaky history of curing with vibrations

Vibration devices have been used to treat everything from 'hysteria' to hair loss. So Marie Kondo's tuning forks and crystals are nothing new.from www.shutterstock.comYou might remember how Gwyneth Paltrow’s health...

These young Muslim Australians want to meet Islamophobes and change their minds. And it's working

While most research participants believe in the power of contact, dialogue and exchange to transform negative attitudes. ShutterstockThe political influence of the far-right, along with a more salient national security...

Smoke haze hurts financial markets as well as the environment

Sydney is currently blanketed by smoke haze from severe bushfires that have burned through New South Wales. Air pollution levels on Thursday reached hazardous levels for the second time in...

How 1 bright light in a bleak social housing policy landscape could shine more brightly

In the year since the Australian government created the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC), its bond aggregator, AHBA, has raised funds for affordable housing providers, allowing them...

why does wood crackle in a fire?

If you've ever put wet wood on to a fire, you may have noticed it makes a lot more noise than dry wood. ShutterstockWhy does wood crackle in a fire? –...

Scott Morrison will go into 2020 with a challenging cluster of policy loose ends

Scott Morrison’s government is heading to the end of 2019 amid a debate about its economic judgement and with a number of substantial policy moves started but not completed.Morrison this...

New report shows the world is awash with fossil fuels. It's time to cut off supply

Australia's coal production is expected to jump by 34% to 2030, undercutting our climate efforts.Nikki Short/AAPA new United Nations report shows the world’s major fossil fuel producing countries, including Australia...

Enough ambition (and hydrogen) could get Australia to 200% renewable energy

Hydrogen infrastructure in the right places is key to a cleaner, cheaper energy future.ARENAThe possibilities presented by hydrogen are the subject of excited discussion across the world – and across...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

4 Tips to Prepare for a Home Meditation RetreatWhy You Should Hit the Gym This SpringSaving History One VHS Tape At A Time4 Vaccines Your Teens Should Be GettingStrength Training Tips To Make Your Workout EffectiveTop Fashion Secrets To Look Stylish No Matter The Occasion  How to save money on major home repairsCan I Do Something About My Sensitive Teeth?Climbing Out of a Creative Rut – Strategies for Photographers5 Digital Free Holidays: Take a trek and get back to nature8 Things You’ll Need for a Positive Breast Surgery RecoveryThe Best Sites and Events to See in Melbourne Everything You Wanted To Know About Air CompressorsWhat to Consider When Buying a Home With KidsPlaces to visit on your first trip to North America