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Memorizing Poems

Jim Holt began memorizing poetry by heart a few years ago. In an essay, “Got Poetry,”published in The New York Times Book Review in April (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/books/review/Holt-t.html), he says that memorizing is a “physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one.”

I began writing poetry myself some years ago and have even had a few poems published. But I have never studied it or memorized it. I haven’t even memorized my own poems. That’s strange.

What would I discover about language if I added the dimension of memorization and recitation? What would I discover about my mind and how it encodes and decodes language? What would I discover about a well-known poet’s mind and use of language?

I am at the very earliest stages of this very pleasurable experiment. I chose a very short rhymed poem—fourteen lines—to get me started and have taken Holt’s advice to learn it incrementally, a couple of lines a day. I have a goal of memorizing one poem a month but if I don’t, I don’t. The point is to have some fun, immerse in the language, and exercise weak neural pathways in my aging brain. What the spillover effects will be I have no idea but last night I was at a restaurant with my husband and said I’d like to recite ten lines of a poem to him, if he didn’t mind. He didn’t. First I wrote the ten lines out on the paper tablecloth stopping the busboy in his tracks. He looked over my shoulder and sighed. And then I looked away from the poem into my husband’s eyes and recited the lines I’ve learned thus far. He sighed, too, and so did I. In the midst of the din of the restaurant and our busy urban lives, we’d found a moment of peace.

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