Modern Australian

why memorising poetry still matters for human connection

  • Written by Veronica Alfano, Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

Memorising poetry was once common in classrooms. But it has, for the most part, gone out of style. There are good reasons for this.

Memorisation can clash with creativity and analytical thought. Rote learning can be seen as mindless, drone-like, something done without really thinking about why we’re doing it and what the thing we memorise might mean.

In other words, it can be counterproductive to learn a poem by heart without understanding its content, knowing anything about its author or historical context, or asking what specific aspects of its language make it powerful and appealing.

Literature instructors tend to focus more on showing students how to conduct careful textual analysis than on having them reproduce poetic lines word-for-word. Analytical skills are crucial, and educators should continue to emphasise them.

Read more: Hooked on the classics: literature in the English curriculum

But there is great value in memorisation as well. Internalising a poem need not be a rote process. Done right, in fact, it is an intellectual exercise that illuminates the structure and logic of the text.

Nevermore, evermore, nothing more

A teacher might prompt his or her class to reflect on which patterns of sound (such as rhyme, meter or alliteration) serve as memory aids, asking how these patterns interact with the narrative arc of the poem.

Let’s imagine a student sets out to memorise Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Here are two lines from that poem:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

Someone searching for memorable patterns in the language would probably pay close attention to Poe’s internal rhyme: “uncertain” gives us “curtain,” and “thrilled me” prompts “filled me”.

But that same student might also struggle to keep the exact phrasing of the stanzas’ final lines straight, given that all eighteen of them conclude with “nevermore”, “evermore” or “nothing more”.

why memorising poetry still matters for human connection Most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears. kalpesh patel/Unsplash

This could generate a conversation about the role of repetition in the poem – for instance, perhaps it reflects the obsessive and confused mindset of Poe’s speaker.

Students tasked with memorising poems are often required to speak them aloud as a test of mastery. This, too, has its benefits. Reciting a poem can provide a deep and visceral understanding of its linguistic strategies (think of all those rustling “s” sounds in “silken, sad, uncertain”).

Read more: Victorian women poets of WW1: capturing the reverberations of loss

And when saying the poem aloud, you can hear another consciousness speaking in the cadences of your own voice. Counting out the beats of each line, you may feel the poem’s metrical pulses in your tapping fingers and toes.

In this way, the poem becomes an embodied experience and not merely a printed object.

A rich mental resource

True, reading a poem aloud rather than memorising and reciting it can have similar effects to all those above. But performing that poem without the distracting mediation of the page helps incorporate it more thoroughly into mental life.

In doing so, you can enact the way in which many poems – even as they give voice to a sensibility outside our own – also appeal to us precisely because they seem to articulate our unuttered thoughts and feelings. Reciting a poem without reading it can make it feel like it’s just you talking, not necessarily somebody else.

why memorising poetry still matters for human connection Memorising poetry provides a rich mental resource of beautiful phrases. Daniel Hansen/Unsplash

Few of us have dealt with an ominous raven perching in our chambers, but most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.

Memorising poetry, then, is also a kind of long-term investment. To take a poem with us so we can truly know it, we must know it by heart.

When we commit poems to memory, we internalise a voice that may comfort or inspire us in the future. We create a rich mental resource that lets us summon compelling, evocative, finely-crafted language at exactly the moment when it is most relevant to our emotional lives.

Such language both illuminates and is illuminated by our experiences. Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday” begins with these lines:

My heart is like a singing bird

Whose nest is in a watered shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit.

For a school child who learns Rossetti’s poem, such metaphors may not be particularly meaningful. But if she carries those lines in her mind over the years, they are likely to take on fresh significance.

If later in life she falls in love or has an intense spiritual experience, they may help her articulate her feelings to herself. Perhaps on a snowy day she will think of Charles Wright’s words: “Things in a fall in a world of fall […]”.

Read more: Friday essay: garish feminism and the new poetic confessionalism

Perhaps the arrival of a child will remind the former student of Sylvia Plath’s “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”.

Understanding our own sentiments through someone else’s words can provide a thrilling sense of connection, of shared humanity across time and space.

There are certain intellectual advantages to having a wealth of information at our fingertips at all times. But the vast resources that smart phones provide can’t make the beauties and insights of poetic language part of our everyday perspective on the world and fine-tune our emotional vocabulary in the process.

For that, we must still memorise.

Authors: Veronica Alfano, Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

Read more http://theconversation.com/ode-to-the-poem-why-memorising-poetry-still-matters-for-human-connection-121622

NEWS

Why Australians fell out of love with Holdens

Harrison Broadbent, Unsplash, CC BY-SAThe jingle used to tell us we loved “football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars”. These days we love Japanese utes and small Toyotas, Hyundais and...

65,000-year-old plant remains show the earliest Australians spent plenty of time cooking

Researchers May Nango, Djaykuk Djandjomerr and S. Anna Florin collecting plants in Kakadu National Park.Elspeth Hayes, Author providedAustralia’s first people ate a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and other...

Coles says these toys promote healthy eating. I say that's rubbish

ShutterstockAs a parent, I find it so frustrating to take my children shopping, reusable bags in hand, only to be offered plastic toys at the checkout. It’s an incredibly confusing...

Nearly 80% of Australians affected in some way by the bushfires, new survey shows

James Gourley/AAPLast month, the Australian National University contracted with the Social Research Centre (SRC) to survey more than 3,000 Australian adults about their experiences and attitudes related to the bushfires...

Books in a post-f@#^ world. Are we all sworn out yet?

ShutterstockWarning: this piece features frequent coarse language that may offend some readers.S...

Constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians must involve structural change, not mere symbolism

AAP/Lukas CochIn his Closing the Gap speech to parliament last week, the prime minister injected some order and transparency back into the constitutional recognition process.The PM anchored his government’s work...

Our trade talks with Europe and Britain are set to become climate talks

Foreign Minister Marise Payne meets UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in Canberra on February 6.Lukas Coch/AAPClimate change is set to become an inescapable part of negotiations now underway over an...

Home-owning older Australians should pay more for residential aged care

ShutterstockHeavily subsidised aged care services used to be seen as a right and entitlement for all older Australians. But as aged care demand grows and costs rise, it’s becoming increasingly...

West Gate Tunnel saga shows risk of 'lock-in' on mega-projects pitched by business

Victoria’s government finds itself in a big hole with its West Gate Tunnel project. As diggers lie idle in a dispute over what to do with contaminated soil, it’s facing...

Rain has eased the dry, but more is needed to break the drought

After the intensely dry conditions of 2019, January and February have brought much-needed rain. Dams in many cities and towns were replenished and some farmers may be able to grow...

Aussie Rules players risk injuring hands and wrists too

Richard Wainright/AAP ImageWhen people think about Australian Rules Football injuries, they tend to think about head injuries and the long-term effects of concussion. Or they might think of the potentially...

Major airlines say they're acting on climate change. Our research reveals how little they've achieved

If you’re a traveller who cares about reducing your carbon footprint, are some airlines better to fly with than others?Several of the world’s major airlines have announced plans to become...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

SURPRISE YOUR KID WITH DREAM TOYTIPS FOR BRIDE ON THE EXPO EVEThe Ultimate Annual Home Maintenance GuideWHY SHOULD YOU GIVE UP SUGAR?FACTORS TO CONSIDER WHEN SELECTING THE BEST WATER HEATER FOR YOUR HOUSEHOLDTHINGS TO KEEP IN YOUR KNOWLEDGE IF YOU PLAN ON GETTING A NOSE JOBTypes of Carpet CleaningImportance of protein powder before and after the workoutTOP 10 TRENDS OF MEN'S WEDDING SUITSIDEAS TO HOST A PARTY AT THE BEACHBiggest Mistakes Made When Planning a VacationTen Uses of Iron-on Clothing LabelsBefore and after workout mealsWho is a fitness instructor? Learn Everything