I’ve been thinking lately about poetry, about what sticks in our minds when we hear a poem. The sound of the words, the rhythm of the meter. I was watching TV the other day and heard some lines that I knew immediately were Shakespeare, even though I was unfamiliar with them. They just sounded like Shakespeare, you know? I often wish that I had read more poetry growing up, or had some way of bridging the gap between Shel Silverstein and my college-assigned Norton Anthology of English Literature. The pieces that did fill in that gap were poems in other books, poems that characters I loved had studied and, usually, memorized for recitation to a group. I remember being wowed by this as a kid. Anne Shirley really stood up there and recited all of “The Highwayman” at the White Sands Hotel? Mary, Laura, and Carrie Ingalls really had enough poetry memorized to take turns reciting over a whole afternoon when they were snowed in during a blizzard? That cemented it; memorizing poetry was cool, and when I was grown up I would have swarms of smart, literary friends and we would all go around quoting poetry to one another all the time, as the girls in my favorites stories did.
While I am blessed to have smart, literary friends, the “quoting poetry” bit of that dream has not panned out as I thought it might. Here and now, however, I want to become an advocate for memorizing poetry. And I know of a good place to start! My new favorite library find is a poetry collection selected by former Children’s Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman, called Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart. They range from funny (“Eletelephony” by Laura E. Richards) to serious (“Poem” by Langston Hughes) and very short (“A word is dead” by Emily Dickinson”) to intimidatingly long (“The Jumblies” by Edward Lear). Illustrations are by Michael Emberley, and the collection is helpfully broken up into categories, like “Beautiful Beasts” and “Weather and Seasons.” I think my favorite section is “Poems from Storybooks,” which includes bits from James and the Giant Peach and The Fellowship of the Ring. Many of the poems are rhyming narratives, which I think helps with memorization; it’s fun to think of this process as just telling a story out loud.
There is always a case for reading poetry, and others have made that point much more eloquently than I can do here. But I do think there is an important quality to memorization, as we recognize when we memorize Scripture. We are holding the words closer to our hearts when we memorize them, keeping them on the top shelf of our mind so we can call them up when we need to, or even just when we want to. Wouldn’t it be fun to stroll along on a rainy day and just have Langston Hughes’ “April Rain Song” right there, ready for your enjoyment and reflection? Forget-Me-Nots has made me consider again the virtues of poetry memorization, and I can’t wait to start.
What about you? If you or your family have any favorite poems memorized, I’d love to hear about them!