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.