By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
“To know a poem by heart is to own a great work of art forever.”
That’s what England’s Education Secretary Michael Gove said last month when promoting his country’s new competition, “Poetry by Heart,” according to a story in England’s Telegraph.
The country is investing a half million pounds in the program run by the Poetry Archive.
We Americans aren’t eligible, but the site’s timeline and collection of poems is worth taking a look at, especially if your brain is abuzz with the un-poetic noise the rest of the internet sends our way.
Are these words or art forms we give much thought to in 2013?
It’s true the gadgets at our fingertips have redefined the value of recall. And there is a legitimate argument for shifting away from memorization in some aspects of our lives and education.
But, just yesterday, for example, I was reminded of the power of words and the gift we are given both as listeners and writers when we have a depth of familiarity with great poetry or significant works of writing.
When I taught public speaking, I often asked my students to read aloud Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Even an imperfect memorization of that would give them a greater sense of the scope and nuance of Martin Luther King Junior’s 1963 speech in Washington.
As for poetry, kids are more willing than even adults to leap into its description of experience. They already speak from a place of metaphor.
Who but a child (or E.E. Cummings) would offer:
“I could be a unicorn. Or I could be a puzzle. Mama put me back together?”
Memorization takes work. And it takes a willingness to say the words out loud. It cannot be done quietly hunched over a page. To commit anything by heart, the rhythm of the language is absorbed, like music or a song.
Doing this will be increasingly difficult for a generation that holds the world by its texting thumbs.
So maybe poetry and memorization can be useful cross training, from physical, intellectual and emotional points of view.
But maybe the best reason to keep the memorization and speaking of poetry in our children’s lives goes back to what England’s education secretary said. It lets you “…own a great work of art forever.”
I’d offer that it also lets you “feel it”, connecting a person with something both intimate and universal.
Social media attempts to give us intimacy and interconnectivity that rivals this universality. But at the end of the day it feels hollow in comparison….like the stone in “Ozymandias”……
Would you be willing to memorize a poem this year? Would you help your child learn one, too?
Yesterday we heard a poem that speaks to our own time, Richard Blanco’s poem, “One Today.”
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
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