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Them Crazy Poets Ought to Be Committed . . . to Memory [Updated]

Here's another argument Mike Snider may want to trot out in his continuing fight for rhyme and meter in poetry: the classical examples of English language poetry in form are Good For The Children. Writing in the summer issue of The Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Michael Knox Beran sets out to make the case In Defense of Memorization.

Beran writes: "If there’s one thing progressive educators don’t like it’s rote learning. As a result, we now have several generations of Americans who’ve never memorized much of anything." While the memorization of exemplary poetry -- be it Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Blake or the unduly maligned Longfellow -- and important prose -- the Declaration of Independence or Gettysburg Address, perhaps a Psalm or two -- was once a mainstay of public education, it was effectively blotted out by the 1970's. The result, Beran argues, was a loss to American youth:

From The Cat in the Hat on up, verse teaches children something about the patterns and relationships that bind together the words of which it is composed. Poetry sets up an abstract system of order and harmony; the rhythm and the rhyme scheme are logical structures that a child can comprehend even before he understands the words themselves, just as he can grasp the rhythmic and harmonic relations of a piece of music.

What the child discovers, in other words, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but important to cognitive development. Classic verse teaches children an enormous amount about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry, agreement, temporal relation (tense), and contingent possibility (mood). Mastering these concepts involves the most fundamental kind of learning, for these are the basic categories of thought and the framework in which we organize sensory experience.

Invoking Bill Cosby's recent jeremiads, Beran suggests that it is underprivileged, inner-city students who have lost most from the disappearance of memorable and memorizable verse in the curriculum: "To kids who have never known anything but demotic English, literary English is bound to seem an alien, all but incomprehensible dialect. Kids who haven’t been exposed to the King’s English in primary school or at home will have a hard time, if they get to college, with works like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick. In too many cases, they will give up entirely, unable to enter the community of literate citizens—and as a result will live in a world of constricted opportunity."

He concludes that educators who drove memorization out in the name of freeing students succeeded instead only in imposing a different set of chains:

[T]he progressives’ educational philosophy is only superficially a philosophy of liberty. The progressive exercises in 'guided fantasy' and 'sensitivity training' that have replaced memorization and recitation do little to free kids’ selves. The older techniques, by contrast, are genuinely liberating. They build up in the child a more powerful mental instrument, one that will allow him, in later life, to make good use of his freedom. They cultivate those critical powers that enable an educated adult to question authority intelligently. The older techniques also unlock doors in the interior world of the soul. Classic poetry and rhetoric give kids a language, at once subtle and copious, in which to articulate their own thoughts, perceptions, and inchoate feelings. They help awaken what was previously dormant, actualize what was before only potential, and so enable the young person to fulfill the injunction of Pindar: 'Become what you are.'

This kind of memorization does not impose upon young minds a single dogma, nor does it exalt, as the Islamic madrassa does, a single text above all others. If anything, it is the progressive liturgies—with their 'diversity' drills and cult of self-esteem—that embody a narrow and intolerant ideology, one that imprisons kids in the banal clichés of the present and puts much of the past off limits, as though the moral and spiritual inheritance of Western civilization were somehow taboo. The literary culture at the heart of these exercises in memorization, by contrast, is a record of how men and women have, in various times and places, struggled to understand themselves and make sense of their natures. Such culture does not repress or enslave: it enlarges and strengthens and frees.

Update: I hadn't noticed it yet when I linked him in my introductory sentence, but Mike Snider is offering scientific evidence for the salubrious health effects of accentual-syllabic verse.

Updated, again: At About Last Night Our Girl in Chicago jumped on this article right away. She's also showing off her feat in memorizing one of Theodore Roethke's tricksy poems, "Wish for a Young Wife," which looks at first like an innocent piece about a lizard -- especially if you have the poem without its title -- but is a bit more simmeringly erotic 'pon reflection. (With Roethke, one is always in the hothouse.)

I think my own best feat of poetic memorization -- other than than the dialogue for my roles in divers plays over the years -- was the side effect of nightly readings to our sons as they were growing. I am tolerably certain that I can still recite all or nearly all of Edward Lear's "The Dong With a Luminous Nose," praises of which I posted last September, here.



This resonates with a quote I have posted in my cube, from "Culture of Complaint" by Robert Hughes. "Untrained in logical analysis, ill-equipped to develop and construct formal arguments about issues, unsed to mining texts for deposits of factual information, students fall back to the only position they can truly call their own: what they feel about things. When feelings and attitudes are the main referents of argument, to attack any position is automatically to insult the holder."
Most of the verse in my memory IS Dr. Suess.
See you Saturday!

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