My granddaughter recently delighted me with her recitation of a long poem about the American Presidents. While it may not have been great literature, it contained important information, which I believe she will retain for a lifetime. The mental discipline involved in her learning it inspired me to reflect on my own childhood attempts to memorize poetry.
The need for memorizing a poem has been challenged during these days when anything can be found with a few taps on a smartphone. But there are those who recognize real benefits for the practice.
Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind, argues that "memorizing poetry turns on kids' language capability. It not only teaches them to articulate English words; it heightens their feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language — an indispensable attainment if they are to go on to speak, write, and read English with ease.”
She explains that the student who memorizes poetry internalizes the rhythmic, beautiful patterns of the English language where they become part of the person’s “language store,” those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking.
Bauer adds, "It also stocks those bins with a generous supply of the English language's rich accumulation of words. Research suggests that the size of a child's vocabulary plays an important part in determining the quality of his language comprehension skills.”
Brad Leithauser’s article “Why We Should Memorize” in The New Yorker includes the argument that verse memorization enables you to “take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”
When my own children were young, we established a family tradition that, in honor of someone’s birthday, my children would memorize a poem to recite to the honoree. The memorization required real effort from them and was appreciated by the recipient of the recitation.
They began with short verses and worked their way up to longer, more demanding poems. My adult children still remember theirs, years later.
Our childhood memories somehow take up permanent residence in our minds, and the poems we learn are no exception. Public libraries are full of great compilations for children of all ages. Why not spend a few hours helping a child fill up his language stores?