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I forgot what I was going to say about memory.

February 25, 2013

Really. I had a point to make, but I didn’t write it down.

Notes are helpful for certain kinds of thoughts—those insights and connections that make an impression during the day but which haven’t been explored in a way that leaves them in longer term memory.

Notes are also helpful for those apparently brilliant thoughts that would haunt you if you forgot them. Writing them down usually removes all doubt that they are, in fact, forgettable.

No, I had something to say about memorizing poetry after reading Brad Leithauser at the New Yorker on “Why we should memorize.”

The online comments make an interesting mix of fond and not so fond memories, reflections on the experience from childhood and adulthood both, and gratitude for the permanent possession of long-ago memorized poems.

Of course, not everyone is sanguine about the practice. One person said: “Please explain the value…any value… of contorting our brain cells when the info is already at our finger tips. There may well be a case for imposing this [unpleasantness deleted] but the author doesn’t make it.”

In fact, the author does: “The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you … know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

Or, let’s not forget, read it off a printed page.

This experience is confirmed by everyone I know who has memorized poetry. As one reader commented, “one blessing of memorization that Mr. Leithauser doesn’t mention is the remarkable richness that comes from having instantaneous access to a wealth of associations and images that both ground and expand everyday experience …

“… memorizing a poem (or anything else, for that matter) brings the material into the body, and its presence becomes something of a corporeal companion, drawing simple observations or sensations into a vast and wonderful skein of connections, meanings, feelings.

“Obviously, this sword cuts both ways, and not all that lodges in the mind is literature. For better or worse, we live in the synaptic web of our accumulated experiences, so watch what you put in there!”

There is joy and utility of memorizing poetry, but I’m interested in the idea that memorization becomes unimportant as we have a world of information at our fingertips.

Ignoring such questions as ‘What happens when the power goes out,’ the idea that the Internet is, and should be, replacing our memory makes me wonder, “Well, what am I for?”

Another comment cautioned: “Everything in its place … an ego chock-a-block full of memorization can often be mistaken for a self, while there is more to actual self-realizing than that.”

What is self-realizing? The more I am merely a processor of information, or a searcher of information to be processed, the more I am merely a consumer—the all-important human role in modern society, it seems, but a terribly hollow one.

Once you know the way to San Jose, you don’t have to look it up again and again. But it’s definitely the case today that many people rely on GPS and Mapquest rather than what could be the ever-richer maps in their heads.

Remembered poetry makes an ever-richer map of our experience, especially excellent poetry which, given the benefits mentioned above, would make embodied excellence—of perception, thought, and expression.

See if you can memorize a poem by April, national poetry month.


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