Yesterday’s NY Times had a good op-ed piece, A Lost Eloquence, by Carol Muske-Dukes on the value of memorizing poetry, which I heartily endorse. The opening is a little silly, but here’s the heart of the essay:
Years ago, when I taught in the graduate program in writing at Columbia, the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was also on the faculty. Brodsky famously infuriated the students in his workshop on the first day of class, when he would announce that each student would be expected to memorize several poems (some lengthy) and recite them aloud. The students — even if they had known that Brodsky had learned English in dissenter’s exile in Russia by putting to heart the poems of Auden, among others — were outraged at first.
There was talk among students of refusing to comply with this requirement. Then they began to recite the poems learned by heart in class — and out of class. By the end of the term, students were “speaking” the poems of Auden and Bishop and Keats and Wyatt with dramatic authority and real enjoyment. Something had happened to change their minds. The poems they’d learned were now in their blood, beating with their hearts.
In the workshops I teach I continue to ask students to choose poems to memorize. Recently, a young woman loudly resisted what she called a boring exercise. But after memorizing Emily Dickinson, Countee Cullen, Sylvia Plath and several haiku by Issa, she was still going strong — delighted with how the words rolled trippingly off her tongue. “I own these poems now,” she said.