Quick — recite a poem RIGHT NOW

A friend of mine came over the other day (I was experimenting with the concept of stuffing donuts with bacon–no, seriously–and he came to help taste test), and as it inevitably does with him, the conversation turned to literature. The friend in question is Brian “The Lovebasket” Ellingford, the AP English teacher at Orem High School, and a very thoughtful, almost philosophical man when it comes to the subjects of reading, writing, and education. Somewhere in the middle of talking about what kids should read, what kids actually read, what can be done to help kids read more, and so on, the conversation turned to poetry, and we started to realize just how many poems we both had memorized. I can rip out a pretty good array of poems, everything from THE JABBERWOCKY to DEATH OF A BALL TURRET GUNNER and all kinds of stuff in between. How many do you know? I hope that it’s more than you think.

Being naturally competitive, we decided to a) memorize more and b) turn it into a contest. Starting this week, and proceeding through the summer, we’re going to memorize one poem a week, that’s 12 poems. Want to join us? Here’s the rules:

1. It must be a poem you don’t already have fully memorized, but it’s okay if you already have some of it memorized.
2. You must recite the entire poem, out loud, from memory, for at least one other person, on Sunday. That gives you slightly less than a full week for the first one, so pick something easy.
3. There are no length restrictions, but if all your poems are little quatrains or tiny nursery rhymes you’re cheating in spirit. Throw a few multi-stanza poems in there; you can do it.
4. No William Carlos Williams allowed. There will be zero tolerance on this point.
5. Everything is done completely on the honors system. If you say you did it, we believe you.

For my first poem, I’m going to start with one of my favorites: High Waving Heather, by Emily Bronte. It’s a passionate, almost violent depiction of a thunderstorm on the English moor, told with Bronte’s typical intensity. I already have the first stanza cold, so all I need to do is nail down the other two. Here’s the full text:

High waving heather, ‘neath stormy blasts bending,
Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars;
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
Earth rising to heaven and heaven descending,
Man’s spirit away from its drear dongeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars.

All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending
One mighty voice to the life-giving wind;
Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.

Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing for ever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.

17 Responses to “Quick — recite a poem RIGHT NOW”

  1. Daniel Wolf Roemele says:

    Cannot believe you trotted out “DEATH OF A BALL TURRET GUNNER” as one of your examples. I had that one transcribed onto my 9th grade notebook and can still recite it to this day. :) This is a great idea.

  2. James says:

    Hey, Dan, on your new poll, I don’t know any of those guys. I guess that’s what I get for being completely uninterested in cinema. On the other hand, the contest sound fun!

  3. Juliana says:

    I love the idea.

    If you hit a busy week, I’d recommend this poem written by my father:


  4. Robin Weeks says:

    What if we memorized it at one point and have now forgotten some or all of it? (I used to be able to recite The Raven and The Highwayman, but now….) Does re-memorization count?

    Oh, and yay Jabberwocky! :)

  5. I’m in. And I can only recite an embarrassingly few number of poems, so I have a lot of options.

  6. Patty says:

    Do we have to be able to still recite all 12 at the end of the summer? My brain can only hold so many new things – although I still remember many from high school and can whip out long passages of Paradise Lost whenever they’re needed.

  7. Okay. I have no argument with William Carlos Williams being completely unallowed in this challenge. I wonder if you would consider banning Maya Angelou too?

    Probably too much to hope for.

    But I’m in.

    I’ll start with Whitman’s Song of Myself. (kidding)

    I’ll be going with some Dylan Thomas.

    Also, do Shakespeare monologues count?

  8. admin says:

    No Shakespeare monologues, but sonnets are cool. Maya Angelou is not banned.

    Rememorizarions are okay, but don’t abuse the privilege.

    You don’t have to retain the poem past the Sunday on which you recite it.

    In other news, I’m pretty sure I’ve got High Waving Heather pretty well wrapped up. Huzzah! We’ll see if I still have any of it in the morning.

  9. Jake says:

    I chose this one since we recently celebrated Memorial Day:

    “High Flight”

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air….

    Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
    Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
    And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    – Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

  10. So, I’m in. I blogged about it, including the poem I’ll be memorizing (Spring to Fall: To a Young Child, by Gerard Manley Hopkins). http://www.robisonwells.com/2011/06/summer-poetry-challenge/

  11. Wendy says:

    I’m in! Your brother Rob tweeted about it, which is how I found out. I’m starting with Wendell Berry’s What We Need is Here since I just started yesterday. It is short, and I memorized the last few lines a few months ago because I love them so much. Thanks for coming up with the idea.

  12. Andrew Burt says:

    What a coincidence! I’ve just been getting into memorizing poems these past few days. I’ll definitely try this.

  13. Thanks. I like this competition. I did William Blake’s Introduction to Songs of Innocence. It is fascinating to see the poems others are willing to memorize. Broadening my poetry experience.

  14. […] few days ago, I decided to do this poem memorization and recitation challenge launched by author Dan Wells on his blog. (He probably has a much better name for it.) If you want […]

  15. Amy Alice says:

    I chose Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet because it has been on my mind ever since I rewatched Sense and Sensibility earlier this year.

  16. Sarah says:

    Im TEN and love your books!
    Ive memorized Fire and Ice by Robert Frost!!!!!!!!!

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