Last year, while I was still teaching, I spoke to a school assembly about my memorizing of poems; it was on the occasion of my learning Poem #100 (I now am up to about 115 or so). Here's the text of that talk (mildly edited for a general audience). I had a PowerPoint that went with it--but it's not here. Sorry.
WRA Chapel/Morning Meeting
8 November 2010
The older you get, the more stuff happens. And most of it, believe me, ain’t all that good. Yes, the road of later life has detours, potholes, long empty boring stretches, marauding outlaws, bridges out, road-kill (fresh and otherwise), roaming ravenous beasts named Age and Illness, Loss and Dotage. It’s just … AWESOME!
But every now and then I pass on this disintegrating road an odd, amusing milestone … and I want to tell you a story about one of them. It involves that heart up there at the top of the page—and that most beloved homework task of all: memorizing poems.
I still remember the first poem I ever memorized, back at in Enid, Oklahoma, at Adams Elementary School, in the early 1950s. But I can’t repeat that poem here in this historic Chapel. It was a dirty, nasty, filthy little playground rhyme that started out “Fatty, fatty, two by four” and involved a bathroom door. My smutty little satanic third-grade friends and I thought it was fall-down funny. But let’s leave that one back in the Sooner State …
The first poem I had to memorize in school was “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas." [Here, I recited some of it.] I’m sure many of you know some of that one. For an Adams School Christmas Program I recited it for the parents, many of whom—the whole time—cooed like contented pigeons.
Later, in high school, there were others, but the only one I’m certain I learned then was A. E. Housman’s “When I Was One and Twenty”: When I was one and twenty, / I heard a wise man say, / Give crowns and pounds and guineas / But not your heart away ….”
But by the time I began teaching in the mid-1960s, memorizing was falling out of favor in schools. A surprise: For centuries, you see, it had been a standard part of the curriculum. Students in Shakespeare’s day, for example, memorized vast chunks of literature—in Greek and in Latin. Book were rare, expensive. Memorizing took their place. Learning things by heart.
And did you know that we can trace that expression—learning by heart—back to the ancient belief that the heart was the seat of memory? Although biology and neuroscience have taught us otherwise, I still like the idea that we keep what we’ve learned—those things we care about—in our hearts.
Anyway—because memorizing had become “bad” back in the 1960s, I didn’t ever ask my classes to do it, early on. But—sometime in the mid-1970s I resurrected the idea, and I’m not even really sure why. But then I started teaching Shakespeare to my eighth graders over in Aurora, and I decided to have them memorize a bit too. We read The Taming of the Shrew, and I had them learn one of its famous speeches. “Well come, my Kate ….”
And soon I was having students memorize other things, too. I’d come to believe, you see, that truly educated people have some famous words in their heads. Not that there’s much call to recite something in its entirety these days. (It’s not likely that a flight attendant, say, is going to summon you up to the microphone and ask you, mid-flight, to entertain your fellow passengers by reciting all of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: As you know, they’d much rather watch Jackass III-D.) Still … when you know something—by heart—and when hear or see a mention of it later, something goes abuzz in you—like a tuning fork. And that buzzing gets nearby neurons a-throbbing, and who knows what that can lead to? Not that it matters—I just like being both sober and buzzed—don’t you?
The human mind can memorize a stunning amount of material. Performers could recite all of The Odyssey from memory. Shakespeare’s leading actor, Richard Burbage, played a different major character in a different play every day, six days a week. My dad had a university colleague who each Christmas recited from memory all of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—nearly 30,000 words! And some of you may remember Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? At the end of that futuristic novel about the government’s burning of all books, we meet characters who are books—people who live in hiding, people who have memorized entire texts so that they will not die out.
As many of you know, I still require my English III students to memorize a dozen pieces a year, including all of “To be or not to be” and a number of other things by famous American poets like Emerson and Holmes and Longfellow and Dickinson and friends.
Well, I’ve always memorized these poems along with my classes. On the practical side, it makes grading their quizzes much quicker, but I soon discovered that I just plain enjoyed knowing those poems. I started putting them on little cards, carrying them around in my pockets and backpack to glance at whenever. I started learning other poems, too—not just the ones I gave my students. Among them were ones with special significance to me—like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “My Shadow,” a poem I remember my grandmother reciting to me more than sixty years ago.
And so my pile of cards started to grow. And because I knew I would forget them if I didn’t review them—you retain in memory only those things you want to keep there, the things you work to keep there—I started reciting them in my head several times a week—when I was walking somewhere, or riding the exercise bike, or even driving—hey, it’s safer than texting!
And then last summer I started to wonder how many I’d learned. I put all the cards together and counted them. There were about ninety of them. Ninety! I couldn’t believe it. I was sort of proud of myself, then decided: I wanna know 100. There’s something about a milestone like that, isn’t there? A hundred just sounds a lot better than ninety. Even though it’s not.
So I went through anthologies looking for poems I really liked—or ones that meant something to me—picked out ten more, started learning them. And a couple of weeks ago, I finished #100—a couple of those shorter speeches from Hamlet: the one that has “what a piece of work is a man,” the one with “‘tis now the very witching time of night,” the one with “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Here’s a list of all of them …
But when I reached one hundred, I didn’t know quite how to celebrate. What do I do? Buy a helium balloon out at Acme? Post the news on Facebook? Shoot some video and upload it to YouTube? Jump on Twitter and Tweet about it? Rent an airplane to sky-write over Hudson: DYER REACHES 100! And then … an epiphany: I’ll write a poem about it! And I’ll make the whole school sit there and listen to it! Awesome!
So here goes … and—no!—I don’t know it by heart!
Oh, you can have your Londons,
Your Parises, your Romes,
And you can have your Hudsons, too,
‘Cuz I got all them poems!
Yeah, some of them are sorta short,
But some: enormous tomes—
And I have got a hundred now,
A hundred freakin’ poems.
Now you might think it’s awfully hard
To cram inside your domes
So many lines, so many rhymes,
So many famous poems.
But it doesn’t take an Einstein—
Require a Sherlock Holmes—
It takes no Stephen Hawking, no,
To learn a hundred poems.
(If Dyer can do it, that old man,
Then you can do it, Homes—
Just get a book, and take a look,
And pick some purty poems!)
No, it’s no harder than it is
To drink a drink that foams—
All you need is to decide:
“I wanna learn some poems!”
You copy/paste one on a card—
A sort of mobile home—
You take it with you everywhere,
Your precious little poem.
And soon … like we have Hudson, and
Alaska has its Nome,
And Canada its Winnipeg,
You have got your poem!
You then take newer cards along
Wherever your heart roams,
And soon, before you know it,
You’ve got one hundred poems!
Now that I’ve got that hundred,
Perhaps you think I’m done?
But I have got another card—
It’s time for one-oh-one!
Yes, there are strange diseases, and
Some stranger sick syndromes,
And I still suffer from the worst—
But there’s a simple message that
I wish here to impart:
That what you’ve truly learned in life
Lies anchored in your heart.
The ancients knew it; I have learned it—
One of life’s best guides:
An educated mind and heart:
True wisdom there resides.