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To memorize, or not to memorize?

That is the question…but it shouldn’t be. Memorizing poetry, prose, passages from sacred texts, and songs is a beautiful, fruitful practice that I believe everyone can benefit from. The commitment is challenging, but I believe it is endlessly rewarding.

It wasn’t until I took a class where the exams were comprised solely of poetry recitations—totaling over 100 lines for each exam—that I realized the benefits of this practice.

Some people love poetry, and others don’t think it worth their time. Five years ago, I personally considered poetry recitations unnecessary, pretentious, and embarrassing. Who has a stockpile of poems crammed into their head? Nobody I knew.

But when I started my junior year of high school at a classical school, I was dumbstruck in my literature class as we spent ten minutes every day working through a syllabus of poetry.

My teacher would repeat lines of poetry to us over, and over, and over, until I realized I didn’t need her to repeat them anymore.

I soon learned that reciting poetry was far easier than I thought. My classmates and I would stand in front of the library once a month to recite an extensive poem for our class, such as “The Wreck of The Deutschland,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot.

Suddenly, reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” came as naturally as the ocean waves he writes about.

Just last week, my housemate was working through a syllogism for homework. She kept repeating the first two words of the problem, “No man, no man, no man…” But as she was puzzled by the problem, John Donne’s “Meditation 17” immediately came to mind:

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Those two words jump-started my memory, and I couldn’t help but start reciting.

Though lengthy poetry recitations, such as those required for my college exams, are daunting, I’m thankful for the experience. It has reminded me of the beauty and importance of directing our attention to words of great meaning.

Exercising memory

These days, our memorizing abilities are often taken for granted and even thrown under the bus. How often do you hear someone excuse themselves for forgetting something, for having a horrible memory? I outwardly expressed my similarity to Dory and her short-term memory loss for most of my life.

But our ability to hold something by memory is not a static trait. The human faculty to recall information and experiences can be grown, stretched, and pushed past our own unprecedented limits. And memorizing poetry is a great exercise for this.

Sure, you can memorize the alphabet backward, or all the lyrics to High School Musical, but we also have the chance to memorize something beautiful, enriching, inspirational, and impactful. A powerful speech from history. A monologue from a play. A timeless sonnet.

What happens when we memorize poetry

One analogy I’ve heard before is that memorizing poetry is like planting seeds. Planting the seeds takes hard work, and your mind must be fertile and open to the tilling required. But once in the ground, that poem can grow and mingle with the other beautiful thoughts spinning around your head, yielding beautiful fruit.

For me, the reward has come in the form of a new pair of lenses to view the world. Now when I see birds resting on barren, wintery trees, I remember Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” showing me hope in the form of an “aged thrush.”

Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur” reminds me to seek out the presence of the divine in every aspect of my life. Donne’s “Meditation 17” reminds me that I am not an island entire of myself—the world doesn’t, and shouldn’t, revolve around me.

Memorizing those poems didn’t happen overnight, but these poems sown in my mind five years ago still teach me lessons today.