Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Case for Having Students Memorize Poetry

For the last couple of years, my policy with regard to students' "extra credit" opportunities was entirely focused on incentivizing attendance for out-of-class lectures. If students attended a lecture and wrote a 2-page response essay, they could receive up to 5pts on their midterm or final exams.  If they attended and asked a question, they could get the 5pts without writing the response essay. This was a really successful policy and I recommend it to others, especially those who (like me) find themselves frustrated by students' frequent non-participation in post-lecture Q&A sessions.

This semester, I'm trying out a new policy, inspired in part by an essay that I read many years ago in the NYT"The Case for Memorizing Poetry" by Jim Holt.  (I was reminded of Holt's essay after reading his excellent book Why Does The World Exist?: An Existentialist Detective Story this summer.) So, at the beginning of the term, I told students that there would be one-- and only one-- opportunity per month to earn extra credit in the course, but it would't be easy.  It would require that they memorize a poem (selected by me), recite it aloud (with less than four errors), and explain to me what they think the whole (or some part) of it meant.  I decided that I would select poems that were long enough to necessitate real commitment and a significant amount of time to memorize perfectly, in order to reinforce that "extra credit" is something for which one ought to have to do serious work.

The first poem I chose, for the month of September, was "The Shield of Achilles" (1952) by W.H. Auden, weighing in at a hefty 9 stanzas, 67 lines, long. It is a re-telling of the story of Thetis, mother of Achilles, looking over the shoulder of the armorer Hephaestus as he crafts Achilles' shield. Auden's account of the shield of Achilles is a dramatically different and much darker one than is found in Homer's Iliad, no doubt colored by Auden's distinctly post-WWII moral and political perspicacity.  I honestly thought I would have a dozen students, tops, give it a try.

I'm happy to report I was absolutely dead wrong in that estimation.  Students have one day left in this month to recite the poem and I've already had more than 30 students do it.  Another dozen have scheduled times with me to recite it tomorrow.

Maybe its's true, as I'm sure many of you are thinking to yourselves right now, that students will do anything for extra credit, but I must report that I have hardly ever been more impressed with the earnestness, the insight and the gravity with which students reflected upon this text after standing in front of me and reciting it aloud from memory.  A minority of students were familiar enough with the Iliad that, when called upon to give their interpretation of the poem after reciting it, offered some comment upon its mythic and/or literary origins.  The stanzas selected by a majority of them, however, as well as what they said about their selections, was more than enough to break a person's heart.

For what it's worth-- and it's worth the world-- these are the two selections that, by a long shot, were chosen by most of my students to remark upon.
[6th stanza]
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighed the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came;
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

[Second half of 8th stanza]
That a girl was raped, that two boys knifed a third
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises are kept
Or one could weep because another wept.
After their recitation, several students prefaced an interpretation of the poem with "I don't really know what the whole thing was about but in this part..." or "This is really more about my life but what I think these lines mean is..." or "I'm not sure if this is right but..." and then subsequently floored me with astute, mature, considered, and deeply existential reflections that rival the likes of Sartre, Fanon, even Homer himself. Time and again, listening to them talk about their own vulnerability, their own reckoning with cruel and careless axioms, their own frustration with all that carries weight in the world, their ability to call people by name who died before their bodies died, I could not help but wonder whether these sorts of insights are only possible after spending the kind of protracted time with a text and close attention to each word that memorization of it requires.

Australian poet Clive James speculated (in Cultural Amnesia) that "the future of the humanities as a common possession depends upon the restoration of a simple, single idea: getting poetry by heart." Only one month into this new pedagogical experiment of mine, I'm convinced.  There is much to be suspicious (and critical) about in our students' years of pre-college training to be rote-memorizing, absorb-and-regurgitate test-takers.  We ought be reminded, though, that great value remains in the practice of committing a text to memory, when we take care to ensure that the final cause of that practice is not simply recitation or repetition, but rather wisdom, judgment and prudence.

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