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November 3, 2013

Living with an acute poetry infection

I caught the poetry bug at an early age, and I’ve been happily suffering from its symptoms ever since. 

My elementary school teacher had our class memorize poems: Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”; a few stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha”; and Clement Moore’s classic “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). 

Some of my classmates moaned about this work, but I thrilled in it. An inveterate bookworm who stole away from class to sneak into the storage closet and pore over old reading textbooks, I found it wonderful to be able to own these works of literature, to be able to carry them around with me wherever I went. 

Rote learning, once standard in public education, today gets a bad rap. In a Sept. 9 essay for The Atlantic titled “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning,” high school teacher Ben Orlin writes, “Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding.”

I concede Orlin’s central point — that memorization is not enough to engender understanding. But when I recited these poems, I could feel the chill and quiet stillness of Frost’s woods, the “easy wind and downy flake” that filled them. Santa Claus was never more real to me than when I pictured him as a “right jolly old elf,” with “cheeks ... like roses, and nose like a cherry.” And I still sometimes see moonlight shine through the window and think, “Ewa-yea, my little owlet! Who is this, that lights the wigwam? With his great eyes lights the wigwam?”

Not so for Orlin. 

“When I had to memorize a speech for ninth-grade English, I huddled in the school library for 90 minutes, whispering the words to myself again and again, until they settled into my memory,” he writes. “The process was slow, dull, and stilted. I forgot the speech within weeks.”

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