12 weeks ago (actually 13 now, I think), my friend Brian and I decided, more or less on a whim, that because we were both big fans of poetry we would memorize a poem every week over the summer: 12 poems in all. We did it, and a lot of you did it with me, and the experience was not only fun but surprising in a lot of ways.
First was the effort involved–this was hard, and it required a lot of work and sacrificed a lot of time we could have spent doing other things. It also–and this is the key–was something that we did on our own initiative, with no outside force looking down to make sure we did it. The memorization was all on the honor system, and the choice of poems was completely up to us. I told another friend what we were doing and he laughed, saying “if I were memorizing a poem every week I would just choose haikus every time.” And that would be legal, but it would be missing the point–we weren’t just trying to meet a minimum requirement, we were trying to challenge ourselves to go farther. We were exercising our own ability to set goals and pursue them with self-discipline. I didn’t just learn a bunch of poems, I learned more about my potential to act and excel. Which is maybe too heady of a point to make over a poetry experiment, but there you go.
The second thing I learned is how easy it became to memorize from week to week. By the time I got to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it was far easier than I expected because I’d become a much better memorizer. It helped remind me that your brain strengthens and atrophied just like a muscle–use it, and push it, and it will grow more powerful. Waste it and it goes away.
The third thing I gained, and which covers a whole avalanche of other things, is a vastly improved appreciation for the poems I memorized. Even poems I’ve studied at length, like “Prufrock,” became so much greater once I learned it by heart. The extra effort of memorization taught me a ton about how the poems were structured, and how that structure worked, and what that structure meant.
For those who haven’t been following since the beginning, here are the poems I memorized:
“High-Waving Heather”, by Emily Bronte
“i carry your heart,” by ee cummings
“To Autumn,” by John Keats
“Here, Bullet,” by Brian Turner
“Puedo Escribir Los Versos Mas Tristes Esta Noche,” by Pablo Neruda
“Disobedience,” by A.A. Milne
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot
“The Walrus and the Carpenter,” by Lewis Carroll
“The Miller’s Daughter,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
“Sonnet 29,” by William Shakespeare
“Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes
“Plead For Me,” by Emily Bronte