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November 3, 2013

Living with an acute poetry infection


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. 

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