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November 3, 2013

Living with an acute poetry infection

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The Daily Star

---- — 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.”

Orlin was memorizing something that didn’t hold his interest. But since elementary school, I’ve gone on to memorize several poems, simply because I wanted to possess them; to have access to them whenever and wherever I like. Today, I carry around a small library of poetry that includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Paul Laurence Dunbar, e.e. cummings and a bit of Edgar Allan Poe.  

I know what you’re thinking: “Who needs to memorize poems when you can just look them up in the blink of an eye?” And, you’re right, I just now looked up each of the poets I mentioned. 

“And besides,” you’re saying, “nowadays all you need is a smartphone to keep you from being bored.” 

This is also true. If I wanted to, I could probably read the collected works of Shakespeare on my phone without even making a dent in my data plan. So who needs to memorize anything?

There is something, though, about having a poem with you always. It is great to be able to look up so many things so easily, but my mental library is always powered on; it doesn’t run out of batteries or go out of range. I never forget it when I go somewhere, and it’s the ultimate hands-free device.

More importantly, there is something magical about the act of memorization and repetition as opposed to just reading. You can Google “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (go ahead, I’ll wait) and read about the “shattered visage” that lies, half sunk in the sand. But I can see the “vast and trunkless legs of stone” that stand in the desert; I can hear the ancient and impotent cry, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” These things live inside my mind, right next door to Frost’s woods, Hiawatha’s wigwam and Coleridge’s Xanadu. 

Just as a vaccine triggers immunity by simulating infection, this infusion of poetry has helped inoculate me against bad writing and sloppy language. By controlled exposure to poetry, dosed out in stanzas, I have been infected, in the best possible way, with the charm and beauty of literature. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Emily F. Popek is assistant editor at The Daily Star. She can be reached at 423-1000, ext. 217, or epopek@thedailystar.com.