Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Memorizing: A Problem Balloons ...

I've written here before about the poems and/or literary passages I've memorized. I've reached a total of 161 now (the latest was Philip Freneau's "The Indian Burying Ground"), and I'm starting to have some ... problems.

Not much stays in your long-term memory until you convince your brain you really want it there. And the only way I know to convince my brain is to rehearse those passages throughout the week--every week, whether I feel like it or not. Several times for each older poem, more frequently for the newer ones.

And the problem is this: I'm running out of idle moments to rehearse them. Right now, here's my daily rehearsal schedule:

  • I have a batch I do four mornings a week when I'm in the shower.
  • While I'm dressing for the day, I do a few of the most recent ones.
  • On M-T-Th-F I have a batch that I do while I'm walking over to the coffee shop, another batch I do at the coffee shop, another batch that I do while walking home.
  • On those same days, I have several longer ones that I do while driving to the health club to exercise ("Dover Beach," "My Last Duchess," etc.).
  • At the health club
    • M-W-F: I have a batch I do while on the exercise bike.
    • T-Th-Sat: Another batch while on the exercise bike
    • M-W-F: a batch I do while walking my cool-down laps
    • T-Th-Sat: Another batch while walking my cool-down laps
    • All week--M-Sat--there are two longer ones I always do on my cool-down laps: "Haunted Houses" and "My Lost Youth," both by Longfellow
    • All week--several recent ones I do in the shower and while dressing
    • On the way home--more recent ones
See the problem? I do take Sunday off ... hmmm ... maybe I shouldn't ...

But I can't seem to stop. Today, for example, I'm going to start on Yeats' "Down by the Salley Gardens"; it's not all that long (16 total lines), and it rhymes (abab, etc.), so I think I can do it in a few days. I'll work on it while I'm walking back and forth to and from the coffee shop in the afternoon the rest of this week. (Link to the poem.)

I should add that I'm manifestly not a quick memorizer. This past summer, for example, while we were in Stratford, Ontario, for the theater festival, I worked all week on Cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town" every day, and I still go over that one, pretty much every day, because the language is so unique and complex:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)

I wish I could just look at a poem and know it (I've had some students who could do that [pause for Othello-ian envy to dissipate]). But for me, I carry the thing with me on a 3x5 card (or cards), repeating a line and a stanza at a time, over and over and over again. Until it all sticks. (The older I get, I fear, the less adhesive my brain.)

When I reached 100, I thought that would be it. Same at 125. 150. Now I'm thinking 200 ought to do it.

But when will I rehearse them? I'm already in my head with poems for more than an hour a day--or more. I feel myself becoming one of those folks we meet near the end of Fahrenheit 451, folks who have memorized entire literary works because the government has banned and is burning books (451 F. is the temp at which book paper ignites, we're told). When our hero, Montag, finds this community of memorizers, he is stunned. People who have become the books they memorized--Swift, Darwin, Schweitzer, Aristophanes, Plato, the Gospels, and on and on. One of them tells Montag: All we want to do is keep the knowledge we think we will need intact and safe. ... We'll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth ... (164-65).

As the years go on--if I keep doing this--I may just disappear entirely into my head, where I'll spend all my remaining breaths mumbling the lines of "To be or not to be," "A Visit from St. Nicholas," "The Road Not Taken," "Jabberwocky," "Casey at the Bat," "Down by the Salley Gardens," ...

That would be madness, I know. Lear knew it, too, in the storm: O, that way madness lies! he cried, raging about his troubles; let me shun that; / No more of that (3,4). And then he went there anyway.

copy I read in  Feb. 1981

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