Having Poems by Heart

By Maxine Kumin on 3.30.09

I grew up in an era when in grade school we were urged to memorize Longfellow, Whittier, James Russell Lowell, even Poe, and the habit stayed with me for life. I can still call back about 30 lines of “The Vision of Sir Launfal” and can hear “the tintinabulation of the bells” whenever I want to. As I grew up I did this secretly, taking loved poems in by a sort of osmosis, absorbing the rhymed ones, which were easy to learn by heart as each rhymed word served as a prompt for its fellow.

Photo by Scream Phenix (Oliv.) on Flickr

A moody adolescent, I learned by heart several Millay love sonnets and a large patch of Housman’s mortality-obsessed “A Shropshire Lad.” Those were the years when I thought “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” was the sexiest poem in the English language, and “With Rue My Heart is Laden” the saddest. Ever since, I’ve inflicted this practice on students, requiring them to memorize a poem a week and be prepared to recite it in class. Saying poems aloud is an integral part of the process of understanding, even falling in love with the poem. When they groan I tell them that by the end of the semester they will have solid poems in their memory bank to draw on in isolation when they are taken political prisoner. (Most of them look at me blankly; they cannot think of a single belief for which they would be willing to go to jail.) Still, I like to think that several stanzas of Auden’s “September 1, 1939” and Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” are floating around in the heads of a few dozen ex-students and may just possibly migrate from there into other, younger ones.

topics: Columnists


james stotts said on 4.01.09 at 1:32pm:

the first poem i ever learned by heart, or by any great exertion of the heart, was ‘the raven’—not a poem i care much for anymore, but i have a sense that if i hadn’t memorized it, i would still be mesmerized by it today. that is, how are we supposed to know which poems we love and can sustain us, unless we put them to that test by carrying them around with us and putting them against the important moments in our lives?: when we get taken political prisoners, or fall in or out of love, or on those constant housman mornings when we wake up not knowing if we want to wake up again…and again.

poetry is essentially the art of mnemonics, or art in the medium of mnemonics (making meaning out of memory), the mother of muse-ic.

Richard Motycka said on 4.02.09 at 3:32pm:

How unfortunate that “Shropshite Lad” typo, for there’s little shite in Housman, tho’ much in the other 19th century poems we were encouraged to have off by heart. So much of my memory stranded on those damned shores of Gitche Gumee.

The Editors said on 4.03.09 at 8:53am:

Richard, thanks for pointing out the unfortunate typo. Just corrected it. Apologies to Housman.