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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Memorization Notes

1. Knowing something "by rote" has a negative connotation. Yet knowing something "by heart" is a good thing, right? If you memorize a poem even without understanding it, you will come to understand it later, as it kicks around in your memory. So even a "rote," non-understanding memorization, is worth-while. The alternative to not knowing a poem by memory is to have a second-hand knowledge of it.

2. To memorize a poem is to say that it is worth the time to memorize, that it is worth it. It might take half and hour, for a short poem. Then you might have to re-memorize it a few more times before it is really stored in long-term memory. Many times I memorize a poem and then never relearn it. This is still worth while: to exercise the short-term memory or to slow down the reading of a poem.

3.Learning new texts and relearning old ones, both tasks are equally worth while. At one point I knew most of a short novel by Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen Ill Said, by memory. I could relearn it if I wanted to. "There where she lies she sees Venus rise..."

4. Memorization has an oblique relationship to my "work," my published research. Obviously I don't need to memorize poetry in order to write about it. It is a technique or spiritual practice that make me what I am, rather than something that any scholar needs to do. I know scholars of poetry and even poets who don't memorize at all, who could barely recite two or three lines from memory. I don't think there is anything wrong with this. In fact, I sometimes wish I were not a slave to my own memory.


Lady MacBeff said...

Do you have a technique for memorizing poems? Bizarrely, I find it almost impossible to memorize poems without music. But songs - poems with music - I memorize by the thousands and recall handily.

Why do you feel enslaved by it?

Jonathan said...

Yes. I have a simple technique.

Look at the first line and close your eyes. Repeat the line to yourself three times. Do that with the 2nd line, etc...

Now try five times to get through the entire poem. You might have gotten through 3 lines, or 6. Then start at the point you got to and continue. Repeat until you get through the whole poem.

Now start at the begining again. Recite the poem as far as you can, then look ahead, 5 times.

Repeat until you know the whole poem.

I feel enslaved because then I cannot forget poems I have memorized. They echo through my head at odd moments.

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

One of these days, i will memorize a poem that is longer than a haiku. You've inspired me to do so. I am curious to see what it feels like.

Lady MacBeff said...

Ok, that sounds feasible. Maybe I will view this as a poem-memorizing challenge. I can't really be a writer without even one good poem in my soul-arsenal, can I?

Jonathan said...

Start with something short and easy, like "Nothing Gold Can Stay."

Thomas said...

This post made me think of an exam form for a course on, say, Shakespeare's sonnets.

In the beginners course, in addition an essay interpreting the poems, they take an exam in which they are presented with the three stanzas of a selection of sonnets and must fill in the couplet at the end. In the advanced course, they are given the couplet and must fill in the stanzas.

I think the class would be much more interesting for both students and teachers if the students were trying to memorize all the sonnets while discussing their meaning.