Committed to Memory
Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a memorizing binge. (I may have a disorder.) It began about a month ago at a cousin’s birthday party. After we all sang “Happy Birthday” an uncle joked that, to commemorate the day, someone should recite a poem.
I instantly grew tense. As the resident English Major, I assumed that all eyes would soon turn expectantly toward me. I scrambled to think of something substantial, but all I could recall in that moment were scattered fragments: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring / Who wears short shorts / We wear short shorts” and so on.
At the very least, I could have recited the first twelve lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English — lines which have remained fixed in my memory for nearly a decade even as other, seemingly more accessible lines have drifted away — but that particular passage didn’t feel appropriate for the occasion, considering that no one, neither the audience nor the speaker, would understand a single word of it. And I didn’t have a back-up.
Fortunately, all eyes did not turn expectantly toward me. The call for a recitation was almost immediately over-shadowed by a call for dessert, and the party moved deliciously onward.
But I didn’t. I sat there, determined that I would never allow such a moment to happen again — that I would never be caught without at least one poem in the chamber. And so, right there at that table, I looked up Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18″ on my iPhone and got down to memorizing.
I relay that story because I’m curious about what prompts us to memorize things. In my case, much of the motivation has been fear. Fear that, as an English Instructor, I would be exposed as some sort of fraud. And before that, fear that I would embarrass myself in front of Mr. Bergan and the rest of the class. And long before that, fear that I would let my team and my parents down at JBQ meets.
But fear isn’t (and hasn’t been) my sole motivation. And it certainly hasn’t been the only motivation for others in my circle.
I know that loyal reader (and occasional Risk champion) Rob is able to recite, word-for-word, Colonel Jessup’s famous monologue from A Few Good Men.
And speaking of colonels, I know that one Col. Havoc was at one time (and perhaps still is) able to recite, in sequence, every line of dialogue Star Wars.
I don’t think either of those were assignments for English class. Nor, as much as those two have seen those respective movies, I don’t believe they remember all of those lines simply through osmosis. There was, in each case, a conscious decision to commit lines to memory.
Why did they, and why do we, we make that decision?
Today marks the beginning of a new semester, which means, in part, that I’ll be spending the next several months looking for opportunities to spontaneously recite passages of Great Literature to my students.
And by “looking for opportunities to spontaneously recite” I really mean “carefully orchestrating moments that seem spontaneous in order to give myself an excuse to preform selections that I have painstakingly memorized and practiced.”
Yes, I’m a shameless showoff. But, even while 90 percent of me will be showing off, 10 percent will be trying to demonstrate that there are things worth memorizing.
I remember, as a junior at Bemidji State, sitting in British Lit. as Dr. Gurney introduced us to the Victorian age by reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which concludes with these lines:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
There was something in Dr. Gurney’s delivery that left me simultaneously awe-struck and haunted. Even as I sat there, struggling to make sense of the closing imagery and the feelings those lines stirred inside of me, I remember being grateful to have an English professor who so loved literature and language that he was able to recite from memory such poems and recite them well.
Needless to say, “Dover Beach” made my personal memorization list on this recent binge. (Having since further studied the poem, I don’t even particularly care for its ideas, but it returns me so vividly to that moment in Dr. Gurney’s classroom that I couldn’t dare leave it out.)
What, though, is the ultimate worth in all this memorization? It requires hours upon hours to commit something to memory, and then vigilance to keep it there. And for what?
At that birthday party table, I mentioned instantly looking up “Sonnet 18″ on my iPhone. What, then, is the point of memorizing a poem when, by the time I’ve just about finished reciting the first couple of lines, my students could read the entire poem (and expert commentary) for themselves in between levels of Angry Birds?
The point is that, while I certainly hope to inspire a few students, I don’t memorize Great Literature only for their benefit. And I no longer memorize out of fear. And while I like showing off, I know I won’t recite everything I memorize. Indeed, there are certain passages I’ve hidden in my heart, just for me.
And I don’t entirely know why.
What things have you been obligated to memorize? Do you still remember them?
What things have you chosen to memorize? What caused you to make those choices?
What is the value of memorization when the world’s information is at our fingertips?
Have I spent the last few days writing up too many assignment questions? (Cite your sources.)