In my poetry workshop at the National Symposium for Classical Education in March, we will be forthrightly old-fashioned, and we will devote much of our time to the merits of memorization.
What happens when a student memorizes a poem? A lot more than what the common word “rote” suggests. It’s not a mechanical exercise. It’s a full immersion in another language, another voice and personality and situation. When they absorb “Because I could not stop for Death” well enough to recite it the next day, they have dived into a fresh and lightsome idiom, one with structure and rhyme. They hear the music of “-cause … could,” “not stop,” and “held … -selves” in the very first lines. How far this is—and how superior to—the patter of social media. The exercise can only enhance their verbal talents.
They also have to become Emily Dickinson, so to speak. Their recitation of “We slowly drove — He knew no haste” wouldn’t work if they kept the identity of high-schooler in Scottsdale in 2022. The imagination has to reach into that little lady’s simmering mind in 1860 Amherst, of which the teacher will say, “Nobody knew she was up in her room writing all these poems, and when she died she asked her sister to burn all her papers.” Is there any better psycho-emotional exercise for the adolescent than to be intrigued by a brilliant or powerful character and enter into it, adopt its feelings and perceptions? This is how we build cognitive empathy, which doesn’t sympathize with another person, but rather seeks to replicate that person’s actual experience. To “become” Dickinson, students imagine motive and reaction, desires and insights (“I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity —”).
It’s hard for the kids. They don’t like it, especially when they have to stand up in class and give the recitation, which sparks the usual fears of public speaking. But here’s what I’ve found when I’ve made college freshmen undergo the torture. They groan at the assignment and fret as they rise to stand before the others, hoping not to be embarrassed, confidence draining away. When the performance begins, they grow focused and intent, fully captured by the words they must recall. Some stumble and pause, but I hush the class to let the one on the spot push that memory muscle and get back on track. Often they do so by themselves, sometimes with a little cue from me, just the first syllable of the next word. And when it’s over the student sighs in relief, and something else, too: great pride.
Yes! The student has done it, worked hard and shown it to others, stood up and performed words written long ago by a genius, and for one minute those words belonged to him, the poet’s identity became her own. This is an authentic achievement. That high school senior otherwise enveloped in social media and youth stuff has lived momentarily in another lexicon and become someone else, and she’s done it right in front of her peers. The satisfaction I see on her face as she takes her seat is priceless. She can take this home to mom and dad, do it again, and they will love it.
So, I say to teachers of English, have your students memorize, memorize. Memory is a muscle. The more they exercise it, the stronger it gets. And the more we have them memorize Dickinson and Shakespeare and Langston Hughes instead of pop songs, the better for them. As a college teacher, I can promise you that it will serve them well at the next level.
Mark Bauerlein, Ph.D. is professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things. Read more about him here.
Dr. Bauerlein will be giving a lecture and running a workshop at this year’s National Symposium for Classical Education. View the Symposium Agenda here: https://classicaleducationsymposium.org/agenda/.