Why Memorize


A couple years ago I did a poetry residency in Dixon, Montana, a town of 216 people give or take. I drove forty-five minutes from Missoula once a week for twelve weeks to teach in a combined classroom of third and fourth graders. The total class count, with all students’ present, was ten. It was the hardest teaching experience I’ve ever had, partly because attendance was sporadic, student reading and writing levels varied widely, and much of the student body lived difficult lives outside the classroom that affected them while at school. But mostly, it was challenging because nothing I tried seemed to reach them or “work.” The first few weeks were chaos and not the productive, creative kind.

Elementary school teachers are remarkable people with outrageous patience who deserve our support. One technique I’ve seen many of them use to great effect is call and response (ie. they say “class class” and the students respond “yes yes” or “when I say x, you say y” like at a concert). Clapping patterns are also highly effective in classroom management. Something about repetition, body memory, music, rhythm. In Dixon, in desperation, I tried for similar engagement by having the students memorize a poem about their town by one of its own poets, Vic Charlo. It really felt like a last resort.

I gave students a written copy of the poem and we practiced aloud, using various techniques. As soon as they started to drift away, we’d do it differently. Each student would recite a line and we’d repeat after them, or we’d say the first two lines over and over together. We’d close our eyes and listen to the sounds. We’d think about the pictures each line brought to mind. We’d do it fast, slow, loud, soft, sitting, standing. We’d do it again and again, week after week. Shockingly, it “worked,” and by this I mean students participated and seemed to enjoy it, to feel proud of what they accomplished when each had memorized the full poem. Not to mention the vibrations and energy of everyone reciting together like a chorus. That was special.

I’m no pedagogical visionary and the value of memorizing poems is not a new idea—it’s the oldest one. As we understand it, the spoken proceeded the written historically and there’s something to this. I want to call it animal or instinctual, something deeply ingrained and transcendent, like the pleasure of music or the power of a chant. Memorizing poems also has the fully-encompassing quality of foreign language immersion—it involves reading, listening, speaking. Ideally, writing too—I didn’t do this with Dixon students but one of the best memorization tools is writing out a poem multiple times.

There are many people who’ve written more and better and further on this topic, memorization in teaching and the value of poetry specifically. And memorization is of course fraught and dangerous when it’s all you do. But in working this year with Poetry Out Loud students, I was further convinced of memorization’s potential, and even saw new powers I’d missed. How to make a poem your own, even an old poem or one by someone with such different experience from yours? Take it into your body, learn it all through like an instrument you master over time, capture the poem’s command, and make it sing like you sing, like only you can sing. At Pueblo Gardens, in a fourth grade classroom this spring, we memorized a poem by Ofelia Zepeda. It was our starting activity in each class for several weeks and I believe it helped the students focus. I also believe it did other things, deeper and more profound, many of which I can only guess at.

Plus, there’s no “proof” it had impact, but I believe it did. Sort of like I believe in poetry generally—stats are irrelevant. It’s a feeling beyond words.  

After a few weeks of working on the poem, a student raised his hand. “Miss, why are we doing this?” My answer was insufficient but I said:

  • It’s fun, right?
  • You’ll carry it with you longer than you think
  • Maybe we could perform it together
  • If you’re blue or confused, you can sing it to yourself
  • The more poems you know, the more naturally you’ll write them
  • You can share it with others and you don’t need anything to do it
  • I don’t know 100%, there are probably other reasons (ie. I should write a blog post for the Poetry Center?)
  • Bottom line, I think it’s magical.
  • Will you trust me? Let’s start from the top.

Rachel Mindell grew up in Tucson. She holds an MFA in Poetry and an MA in English Literature from the University of Montana. Until recently, she was living in Missoula, where she served as a poet in the schools on the Flathead Reservation and directed the Montana Book Festival. Her chapbook, Like a Teardrop and a Bullet, was released last year by Dancing Girl Press. Individual poems have appeared (or will soon) in DIAGRAM, Bombay Gin, Interim, The Journal, BOAAT, and elsewhere. She writes content and manages promotions for Submittable.