Poems to Learn by Heart has people talking about the "lost" art of memorizing and reciting poetry. Throughout the nineteenth century, rote learning was a common feature of both American and British classrooms. Anxious schoolboys, eager to please—and, eventually, schoolgirls too—memorized and recited just about everything, not only poems but also Bible passages, speeches, and, indeed, the vast majority of their "lessons." As pedagogies advanced, rote learning fell out of educational favor. By 1920 in Britain and 1950 in the U.S., the practice of memorizing and reciting poems had ceased to be a mandatory or routine aspect of literary study.
In an interview with NPR's Neal Conan, Kennedy says, "'By rote' has sort of a negative connotation. I don't even know why."
Catherine Robson has a very good explanation for Kennedy. In her sweeping, interdisciplinary study, Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, Robson charts the rise and fall of this once-dominant pedagogical practice. Heart Beats significantly deepens our understanding of the memorized poem, bringing clarity and rich historical detail to a topic that is often shrouded in a haze of cultural nostalgia.
Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America, from which Robson borrows heavily in the U.S.-focused portion of her study, Heart Beats offers a bold, new way to think about the meaning and value of poetry. Traditionally, the field of literary studies has been organized around major authors, historical periods, or national geographies. Robson moves fluidly across time and place, following what she calls "the unbroken line" of poetry memorization and recitation, which remained intact from the late eighteenth century through World War I in the U.K. and World War II in the U.S. As Wordsworth gave way to Whitman and the Victorians bowed to the New Woman, generations of schoolchildren remained united by the shared rhythms of recitation. Heart Beats is a new perspective on literary history, experienced through the beating hearts and sweaty palms of poetry's most assiduous readers.
Casabianca," Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," and Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." Each of these poems featured prominently in school recitations in English-speaking countries for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Afterword also contains short case studies on Rudyard Kipling's "If-" and William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," which, in recent years, have become national favorites in Britain and America, respectively. (Robson has helped me understand why, every semester, at least one of my students begs me to add "Invictus" to our poetry syllabus.)
The Use and Abuse of Literature, Marjorie Garber recounts how we used to speak of someone "having" literature. Samuel Johnson, for instance, said of Milton, "He had probably more than common literature." Johnson doesn't say that Milton wrote great literature, Garber emphasizes, but that he possessed it.
When we read poetry ... there are few lines connecting us to the memorizing population long ago. Because that particular technology of dissemination fell out of pedagogical favor, we now find it hard to appreciate the special relationship between body and poem that was created by a highly structured set of circumstances. (113)"Casabianca," like so many of the poems of the past, felt and meant something different to generations of readers who held its persistent iambic beat, "ti-dum ti-dum," in their "deep heart's core."
Schoolroom Poets: Reading, Recitation, and Childhood in America, 1865-1917, which shows how the recited poem helped to strengthen a culture of the school and nation.
The Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez recounts how he would memorize literature compulsively "to fill the hollow within me and make me feel educated" (qtd. in Robson 184). Dutifully internalizing the words of an English aristocratic canon, Rodriguez grew increasingly alienated from his cultural roots, anxious and displaced.
The words of the poem were eventually read and recited by the very "mute inglorious Miltons" that it had rendered silent and unstoried. "Arguably, the twentieth-century grammar school ended up teaching its free-place students more about class than about classics," Robson writes (156).Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
Kamau Brathwaite and all the Caribbean poets he said couldn't get the snow out of their poetry. Part of the experience of colonialism, according to Brathwaite, is a forced poetics—for him, the artificial heart beat of the English iamb. "The hurricane does not roar in pentameter," Brathwaite famously writes.
Poetry Out Loud, the national recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. This dynamic, extra-curricular arts program hardly seems like "sheep-herding."
But is it an act of creative reading? What are we teaching students when we ask them to memorize and recite poetry? Are our intentions better, different, or purer than our nineteenth-century counterparts? Are our institutions?
What is the heart beat of twenty-first century poetry?