I recently brought home from the library the Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. I’ve of course read a few Keats poems, mainly the odes in some long ago lit class, but I’ve never really taken him to heart.
As soon as I opened to the first poem, sun beaming and coffee cup in hand, I felt the urge to read aloud (as most poetry is meant to be experienced, but so often I find myself reading and pondering in silence). I read To Leigh Hunt, Esq. aloud to myself and to my cats, and this brings me to the point I wanted to make: reading such rhythmic, classic poetry has inspired me to start memorizing poems.
Keats is known for being a Romantic, for his early death, and for his knowledge before said death that his words would be significant long after his time. As a modern writer I myself have often scoffed at poetry that features end-rhymes; I do use rhyme fairly often in my poetry, but I often hide it within lines, trying to avoid any scheme, form or “cutesyness”. (The only form I like is probably villanelle, and those only because when done right, they’re haunting.)
But Keats has changed my mind, for many reasons. Rhyme (and iambic pentameter) makes the act of memorization easier and the lines themselves have more natural flow. And if rhymes can limit the breadth of vocabulary… well, I’m also reading Stephen King’s On Writing, in which he writes,
The commonest [tool] of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In this case, you can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority. As the whore said to the bashful sailor, “It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it.” (114)
I found this article that really resonates with me on the topic of memorization, especially the anecdote at the end. Whatever we memorize, whatever we choose to memorize, can and will stay with us forever.
In some ways memorization is an outdated skill, thanks to technology… but not entirely. Though it was songs and not poetry, when I spent a night in jail I was able to soothe myself through singing every song I could remember the words to. Memorized songs, poetry, jokes, stories, family histories, movie scripts, The Office episodes cannot be taken from you. Not to spout a cliché but our ancestors were telling stories around a fire for thousands of years before anyone thought to record them. In Greece orators were revered. Perhaps I hope to channel some of that reverence in these modern times where any literature that exists is a few taps on a smartphone away.
Plus, there’s something about the heard word that hits harder than what’s on the page. It’s why slam poetry can be so powerful, why listening to speeches is more impactful than reading the transcription, why watching the debate was more emotionally jarring than reading the news the day after.
If I were a teacher I’d probably prescribe plenty of memorization.
To Leigh Hunt, Esq.
Glory and loveliness have pass’d away;
For if we wander out in early morn,
No wreathed incense do we see upborne
Into the east, to meet the smiling day:
No crowd of nymphs soft-voiced and young and gay,
In woven baskets bringing ears of corn,
Roses, and pinks, and violets to adorn
The shrine of Flora in her early May.
But there are left delights as high as these.
And I shall ever bless my destiny,
That in a time when under pleasant trees
Pan is no longer sought, I feel a free,
A leafy luxury, seeing I could please,
With these poor offerings, a man like thee.
Memorizing poems (et cetera) and performing them or simply speaking them aloud to yourself means you get to make those words your own, through inflection, personal vision and identifying with emotion.