Many parents and teachers view poetry as icing on the cake, and it is rare to find elementary or middle school classrooms that give a lot of attention to studying and memorizing it. However, committing poems to memory and discussing their technical aspects can be highly beneficial to students’ academic and personal development. Although much, much more could be said on this subject, below is a relatively short list of reasons why poetry should be an integral part of the classroom experience.
Memorizing poetry will exercise and expand students’ memory capabilities. The mind is a muscle to be exercised, so to speak, and the better trained a muscle is, the better it is able to work. By memorizing poetry, students strengthen, as it were, their minds for other academic work, such as reading history, learning new words, etc.
Memorizing poetry will increase students’ vocabulary. Students don’t just learn new words when they memorize poetry, they learn them in a context so that they can use them appropriately in speech and writing.
Memorizing poetry will give students a stock of words and phrases to draw from when writing. When students memorize poems, the finely crafted phrases become readily available for them later on in their academic life when expressing themselves orally or in written work.
Memorizing and studying poetry will foster students’ aesthetic sensibilities. How many people cannot enjoy a football game just because they have no idea what is going on—what the rules are, what the strategies can be, what the players are doing? The same reasoning can be applied to just about any discipline, including poetry. Also, by being conversant in poetry, students will also be conversant in the other arts as there are elements of poetry that are also found in painting, music, dance, etc. How sad it is for someone to look on a flower and not be able to enjoy its color and design! By examining a poem’s sound and sense, a student will be better able to enjoy the beauty of the world.
Memorizing and reciting poetry will help make students more confident, able speakers. One of the reasons why people fear speaking in public is that they become tongue-tied standing up in front of so many people. Their nervousness makes their minds a jumble and they can’t think of what to say or forget what they had prepared to say. Reciting poetry is a great stepping stone that will help students overcome their nervousness. By having a ready recall of a poem, students can look out into a large audience of faces with confidence, assured that they can say the poem even if they do get stage fright.
Memorizing poetry will give students a private thought life. There are ideas in poetry that will give students food for thought years to come. By committing poems to memory, they will later be able to apply their circumstances, important events, people they meet, as well as their fears, joys, triumphs, failures, and whatever emotion they experience to a poem that they have memorized.
Memorizing poetry will give students an important reference point when encountering new ideas and give them an eloquence of responding to them. In his poem “Expostulation and Reply,” Wordsworth wrote “we murder to dissect.” What the poet meant is that when we reduce any object—a flower, for instance,—to its parts (i.e., its petals, its stem, the color of its bloom, its shape, etc.), we lose an appreciation of the beauty of its whole. Many modern scientists will say, for example, that human beings are merely machines run by a series of complex chemical processes. How can we respond to such an idea? We can say that these scientists are looking at the parts of what a human being is made of but ignore the whole, which is something wonderfully miraculous, otherworldly and different. Or we can respond very pithily, They murder to dissect.
In times of difficulty, a memorized poem can often give solace. The study of literature, when done properly, is not a dry, academic exercise. Because it addresses the human condition, it can be a friendly guide and counselor through life’s journey. Unless we have an immediate recall of a poem, however, that companion will not be close at our side.
Memorizing a poem will give students a better understanding and appreciation of it. I personally have experienced this truth over and over again: memorizing a poem helps in the process of understanding it, and understanding it is key to enjoying it. Years ago, perhaps right up until the middle of the 20th century, one did not have to be an English teacher to enjoy poetry. The most popular authors in America in the mid-1800s were the Fireside Poets, so-called because their works were commonly read in the family circle by the light of the hearth. One of the Fireside Poets, Longfellow, enjoyed the same kind of popularity that soccer stars do today in Europe. Now it is rare to find a person who will pick up a volume of poetry to read for pleasure. One explanation for this change in reading tastes is that people do not enjoy what they do not understand. Those who enjoy and understand mechanics, for instance, appreciate fast cars best. Those who understand the timing, strength and agility that it takes to throw a ball down a field to a teammate for a touchdown, love watching a game of football most. Once students understand what is going on “under the hood” of a poem—the meter, imagery, stress pattern, rhyme, irony, etc. and how these devices work together to make a greater impact on the reader—they will better appreciate the poem itself.
Memorizing poetry will have a positive impact later on in a student’s professional or private life, whether it means becoming a musician, engineer, lawyer, physician or parent. Literature, especially poetry, is one of life’s best teachers. It can add an extra dimension to any discipline, profession or role we decide to take on, making us more informed and thoughtful.