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Memorizing poetry

Discussion in 'Tilted Art, Photography, Music & Literature' started by Street Pattern, Apr 27, 2014.

  1. Street Pattern

    Street Pattern Very Tilted Donor

    This is a tangent from the poetry thread.

    I was never required to memorize poetry in school. Instead, I did it on my own.

    The first one was "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (the T.S. Eliot poem that begins with Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherised upon a table).

    I did this in an unsuccessful attempt to impress a girl. Afterward, I had to listen to her fucking the guy in the room directly above mine.

    Nothwithstanding that lack of success, I went on to memorize a bunch of others.

    I did "The Raven", yes, all 18 verses. I did all 21 verses of "Over the Hill to the Poor House." I did Richard III's speech (from the eponymous play) that begins with Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York. I did "The Second Coming." I did a whole lot of others that I can't remember any more.

    But this was necessarily a private thing. In real life, almost no one wants to sit and listen to you recite poetry. Rather, it was something to do by myself, while waiting for the bus, or while alone on a long drive at night.

    (I did find a use for it when my daughter was a baby: reciting "Prufrock" helped get her to sleep at night. But singing the alphabet song for an equivalent length of time worked just as well.)

    Anyone else have experiences with this obscure hobby?
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
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  2. redravin

    redravin Cynical Optimist Donor

    I don't remember the whole thing now but at one time I had all of Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott memorized.
    I can still do bits and pieces of it.
    For some reason I memorized Jabborwocky when I was a little kid and it stuck with me.

    You're right though people really don't want to listen to you.


    I was thinking to that my grandparents were so different.
    They all seemed to have favorite poems memorized, usually really depressing ones.
    My mom had some of that as well.
    Maybe it was a different generation?
    After a few drinks my grandfather would sing Irish songs of rebellion and quote Yeats.
    My other grandfather would sing IWW songs and quote Red Emma Goldman.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
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  3. Levite

    Levite Levitical Yet Funky

    The Windy City
    Sure. I've memorized a bunch of poems (or parts thereof), and certainly not with much expectation of chances to recite.

    I learned a number of Shakespeare speeches, but that was actually for practical purposes: I started off as an actor, and usually auditioned for drama with Shakespeare. I had three monologues from Henry V that were my usuals: the opening prologue (O for a muse of fire...), Exeter's threat to the King of France (...If you hide the crown, even in your hearts, there will he rake for it), and the Chorus' monologue the night before Agincourt (Now entertain conjecture of a time...). I also learned Henry's monologue the night before Agincourt as my chief dramatic piece to do in studio workshops. But along the way I learned a few other bits as well-- the Hath not a Jew speech from Merchant of Venice, the dagger speech from Macbeth, the To be or not to be soliloquy from Hamlet.

    For a while I had a couple of Shakespeare sonnets memorized, too-- My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun, and When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes. Don't know if I could do them cold now. But I knew them for years.

    I have a chunk of Beowulf that I learned for my minor in English Literature-- the Last Survivor's speech, the one that starts Heald Þu nu hruse, nu hæleđ ne mostan eorla æhte. And I have the first thirty lines or so of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. And a couple of verses of Pearl, my favorite piece of Middle English poetry.

    Let's see.... Kublai Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. How do I love thee let me count the ways, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A couple of poems by Dylan Thomas-- Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, and part of Altarwise By Owl-Light. I used to have a bit of The Raven memorized, but kudos to you, @Street_Pattern, on having all the verses! That's a lot of Poe. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, by John Donne. Keats' Ode On A Grecian Urn. I know I'm missing some others.

    I know a mess of Hebrew poems by various medieval, post-Renaissance, and Enlightenment Jewish poets, too.

    I have quite a lot of Psalms memorized. And several lengthy sections of Torah. But that sort of goes with the territory of being an observant Jew.... Nonetheless I also know the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, which is definitely just a hobby and not the territory of an observant Jew-- used to know the Nicene creed, too, but I doubt I can still remember it all. I know the al-Fathihah (the opening Sura of the Quran), as well.

    Even if there's seldom (if ever) call anymore to recite whole poems by heart, I feel better for knowing some, and I feel like the process of learning it not only was good for my memory, it was good for my language skills and my "tool kit" as a writer and poet.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
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  4. Baraka_Guru

    Baraka_Guru Möderätor Staff Member Donor

    I had to memorize a poem for an introduction to poetry during my undergrad. It was "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. I chose it for three reasons: 1) I had already studied it in high school, 2) I liked the rhyming scheme, and so used it as a memorization device, and 3) my memory isn't that great.

    It's an interesting coincidence that I just posted my current signature:

    “I can’t remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations.”​
    —James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)​

    This is from one of my favourite passages in the novel, mostly because it quite succinctly summarizes how my brain seems to work. My SO is always getting frustrated at my penchant for forgetting details. However, I will certainly recall ideas and sensations. I'm fascinated by them. I seek them out. I collect them.

    I get bored with the details.

    That, I think, explains why I can tackle poems, be moved by them, etc., but memorizing them is a challenge, and it's not something I really want to do.

    Sure, it would be cool to be able to recite a poem from memory. (I couldn't currently do this with the Frost poem to save my life.) And I admire those who do this. As for me, I don't see the value in it on a personal level. Poetry to me is an in-the-moment sort of thing. It comes alive when I read it. It calls forth "ideas and sensations" and instils yet others. To have poems in their entirety "locked" in my head? I don't know if I'd like that. When I return to Frost's poem, for example, it's like experiencing it afresh. If it were forever locked in my brain, I don't think recalling it from memory, intact, would be the same experience.

    It's hard to explain, and maybe some of you will dislike my take on this. But although there are some serious disadvantages to my memory capabilities, I do admire its ability to forget things. It's not that I forget Frost's poem entirely. As the above suggests, its ideas and sensations will remain a part of me.

    Will I ever memorize a poem again? Maybe. I can almost remember William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow," but I'm sure I'd flub a word or two.

    As for its ideas and sensations....
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  5. Street Pattern

    Street Pattern Very Tilted Donor

    I am, if anything, too much into the details.

    About five years ago, out of frustration at not knowing certain specifics, I deliberately memorized the Periodic Table of the Elements -- all the way to #120, Copernicum.

    I also tried to memorize the Tom Lehrer version, which is in a different order, but never quite finished it. In any case, his last bunch of elements ("chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium") is a tongue-twister that I still can't say very quickly.

    I have no real dealings with chemistry or physics, but knowing the Periodic Table is useful for encoding or remembering any kind of short numeric sequence, like padlock combinations or unfamiliar house numbers (e.g., 2779 is Co-Au or "cobalt-gold").
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
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  6. Levite

    Levite Levitical Yet Funky

    The Windy City
    I don't think it works quite like that. Even poems I have memorized I read afresh from time to time, and still find new joy in having the words leap off the page at me. Likewise, just because I have something from Shakespeare memorized doesn't dim at all the zing of hearing the words spoken onstage. In a way, it's no different than re-reading a book you've read often: if you love it, you will still love it, and still find freshness in it.

    But having poems memorized is good for moments when you need something to occupy your mind, and you can't pull out your phone (or at least in some of our cases, it was good to have them memorized in those days before you could just pull out a phone and read off it or look at websites on it or whatnot). And it is occasionally useful to have a ready quote to hand....

    You're better off forgetting it. I hate his poetry. In my high school English class, we used to call him Bill Chuck Bill, and that's probably the only positive association I have with him. I know he's supposed to be hot shit for modern minimalism, but I just have no patience for him.
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  7. Street Pattern

    Street Pattern Very Tilted Donor

  8. Baraka_Guru

    Baraka_Guru Möderätor Staff Member Donor

    Maybe that's it. I don't re-read a lot. I tend to want to read new things. Maybe that's why I have little desire to memorize poems.

    Eh. I'd sooner memorize songs. I think this is mainly because songs are intended for performance, whereas most poetry today is meant for the page. Sure, much of it takes on a life when read aloud, and poetry read aloud is pleasing, but I think (contemporary) poetry's greatest strength is as an intimate reading experience, a kind of conversation between the poem and the reader. Songs, on the other hand, are something else (I won't get into it here).

    So I suppose I'd rather sing a song to myself than recite a poem, generally. I'm sure some poems would be entertaining and rhythmic enough to fulfil a similar role. It's just not something I partake in.

    As for occupying my mind. I tend not to have a problem with that. I'm always chewing on something in my noggin.

    I disagree with this in principle. While I won't speak about WCW specifically, I have great admiration for imagism and minimalism in principle, and these have had a profound influence on poetry in the latter half of the 20th century.

    However, on the opposite side of that, I do have little patience for poetry that is overly ornate or overwritten, especially if it was written within the past 50 or 60 years. I think if anything, the likes of WCW have taught us that poetry doesn't need to be (and probably shouldn't be, in most cases) some grand sweeping narrative that speaks to the world as one.

    Looking back at this post, I've probably rambled. It's late; I'm tired. I hope this makes sense.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  9. In arab culture, poets were highly regarded, and memorising poetry and performing it was something which they looked upon as being grande. It was the way they kept stories alive and passed on from generation to generation. There are famous pre-islamic arab poems that are still revered and memorised to this today. Most notable of these is the "The Hanging Poems" - or the "Al mu'allaqat" in Arabic. These 7 poems were so revered in pre-Islamic Arabia, that they used to be written and hung onto the Kaaba in Mecca.

    Of those 7, is a famous is a poem by Antara, the Arab equivalent to Samson & Delilah.

    sadly i don't know Arabic poetry, heck i don't even know English poetry. However, i do know a large chunk of the Quran by heart. From Chapers (Suras) 78-114 consecutively, yes that's 36 chapters. Plus large chunks of many other parts of the Quran.
  10. redravin

    redravin Cynical Optimist Donor

    That's impressive.
    After having four or five concussions from beating my head on the floor during seizures it's hard for me to remember my kids birthdays sometimes, much less 36 chapters.
  11. Except I have a bad short term memory problem sometimes. The 36 chapters dad would teach me as a kid and its been ingrained ever since
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  12. omega

    omega Very Tilted Donor

    I think there is a lesson here...:)
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  13. Baraka_Guru

    Baraka_Guru Möderätor Staff Member Donor

    The lesson is this: The only thing worse than using poetry to get a girl is using poetry to get money.
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  14. Street Pattern

    Street Pattern Very Tilted Donor

    It was probably for the best. She was very nice, but related to a famous East Coast organized crime family.
  15. A better lesson is this: The only thing worse than using poetry to get money is using money to get a girl...or vice versa
  16. Baraka_Guru

    Baraka_Guru Möderätor Staff Member Donor

    But at least the money works!

    The consequences are another matter.
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  17. snowy

    snowy so kawaii Staff Member Donor

    Despite having a memory for these kinds of things, I actually don't memorize a lot of poetry. I memorized a couple poems because I had to in school, didn't really find the exercise enjoyable, and left it at that. In university, I also had to memorize the opening to Richard the III, which is actually useful to me as a teacher of Shakespeare, and I regret that I do not remember more of it; I ought to sit down at some point and renew my memorization of it.

    There are poems I can recognize lines from immediately, though, even when the lines are quoted in isolation. That's useful.

    I suppose I might reconsider should quoting poetry at length prove to be a skill that amazes and astounds students. I'll do most anything to be able to do that!
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  18. OtherSyde

    OtherSyde Slightly Tilted

    San Diego, CA
    There's a poem called "Petals of Twilight" by Charles Francois Guillermot, which can be found in a book in Paris in the action/RPG/espionage game Deus Ex (the original). I always thought it was a real poem taken from somewhere in literature because it was so well-written, but eventually discovered that it exists only in the game - which means one of the game's writers has a hell of a poetic talent. I think I first saw it way back in 2000 when I first bought/played the game, but it made such an impact that I never forgot it.
    Petals of Twilight
    ...And it is told that he made his way through their streets at night,​
    crawling through their many windows and crouching in their gardens,​
    moving through the sewers beneath their cobbled roads​
    and slipping over their railings.​
    Watched by their cats and the roosting pidgeons of their city,​
    yet wary of their slumbering dogs, he went.​
    They would not see him, nor wake as he drew near,​
    but would only shudder, softly calling out the names of their gods in sleep.​
    Restless, they tossed as he passed under the window​
    like an errant lover fleeing dawn.​
    And by morning light he was gone, away from that place,​
    and moved on to another world.​
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2014
  19. Chris Noyb

    Chris Noyb Get in, buckle up, hang on, & don't criticize. Donor

    Large City, TX
    Money is tight,
    times are hard.
    All I've sent is this
    cheap-ass card.
  20. desal75

    desal75 New Member

    Buffalo, NY
    So I have to ask: what's the method some of you have used? Just reading it over and over? Small bits or all at once? Maybe writing it and then quizzing yourself...

    I've always wanted to memorize If by Rudyrad Kipling but despite it's short length I haven't been successful.