For Poetry Friday: Memorizing Poetry

It is a dream of mine that by the time my boys are grown (14 or so years, on average), they will have memorized considerable amounts of poetry. My inspiration for this comes from Jean Kerr, a humorous essayist/commentator on family life (five boys and one girl) from the late 50s-early 70s. If you haven't read her, do!

In one essay, "The Poet and the Peasants" (anthologized in Penny Candy), she writes of her own efforts regarding the memorization of poetry by the young. "We have made mistakes with our children," she writes, "which will undoubtedly become clearer as they get old enough to write their own books. But here I would like to be serious for a few minutes about the one thing we did that was right. We taught them not to be afraid of poetry." (p 120).

It took great effort on the part of Kerr and her husband. On paper it seemed simple enough--every week the boys (girl not having yet been born) would memorize a poem, and on Sunday evenings they would recite them. The first week was a disaster: three bad limericks and one "lengthy and truly dreadful verse about a cookie-jar elf" (p 123). The second Sunday, featuring poems chosen by the parents, was also unsuccessful-- "the fact that the poems were of better quality and somewhat longer made the recitations even more agonizing, if that were possible" (p 126).

And here is where my admiration for Kerr and her husband really kicks in. They decided they would take an active role in the process: "One week he'd work on two of them while I worked on the other two (the following week we alternated so that the hostility engendered would be evenly divided." The parent would first read the poem, and ensure that the child actually understood it, not just the "meaning" but the words themselves. Then work on reading out loud was undertaken: "Two of the boys were very quick to grasp inflections; the other two were so slow that rehearsing them was like the Chinese Water Torture and I found myself wondering if there was some way to withdraw from the whole plan- with honor. What kept me resolute was the conviction I read in all those clear blue eyes that I would soon come to my senses, that this madness too would pass" (p 127).

But it worked. The boys memorized yards and yards of poetry, developing their own individual tastes--John, for instance, was "awfully good with people who died or were about to die, like dogs" (p 131). And in the end, it payed off, and the boys were ready with apt quotations for any occasion. A broken window one evening elicited this quote from Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold: "Come to the window, sweet is the night air."

So far, with no effort on the part of my husband or myself, my boys have memorized the last verse of Cargoes, by John Masefield, and also Douglas Florian's eminently memorable poem about the Monarch Butterfly (Omnibeasts, 2004), memorable chiefly for its last verse: "He is a Monarch, he is a Duke. Swallows that swallow him frequently puke.")

I wish that I had memorized more poetry myself; the number of poems that I have in their entirety can be numbered on one hand, and includes the Monarch Butterfly (although I also know scads of Mother Goose). Only twice in my life was I asked to memorize a poem for school--the first was a rather unexceptional poem about a hippo in second grade, the second Frost's Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening (perhaps the most memorized poem in the USA?) in seventh grade. I tried in high school to memorize poems on my own, but they didn't stick. I think it helps to start young. With Kerr as my guide, I hope to give my children the gift of a brain full of amusing, beautiful, thought-provoking, and quotable words. And I'm sure I'll get started just as soon as I find the time.

If anyone is curious, here is the poem about the hippo (author and punctuation unknown):

He has opened all his parcels,
But the largest and the last.
His hopes are at their highest,
And his heart is beating fast.
Oh happy Hippopotamus!
What lovely gift is here?
He cuts the string, the world stands still,
A pair of boots appear.

Oh little Hippopotamus,
The sorrows of the small.
He dropped two tears to mingle
With the flowing Senegal.
And the "thank you" that he uttered
Was the saddest ever heard,
In the Senegambian jungle,
From the mouths of beast or bird.

Not exactly a poem that will give me comfort or diversion in my decrepit old age...

If anyone is interested in reading Jean Kerr, here's a quick bibliography of her collected essays:

Please Don't Eat the Daisies 1957
The Snake has all the Lines 1960
How I got to be Perfect 1969
Penny Candy 1970

The Poetry Friday roundup is at The Simple and the Ordinary today.


  1. I enjoyed your comments on the value of memorizing poetry. It reminds me of my dad who could recite scads of stuff long after Alzheimer's had racked his brain.
    When I was teaching English I always had students choose about 14-16 lines from whatever Shakespearean play we were studying and either recite or write them. After lots of grumbling most students enjoyed the exercise and I visualize some of them in their dotage doing what my dad did. Aren't words great?

  2. I just love this urging to remember and recite -- a long-lost art for most of us. Thanks!

  3. That's an interesting thought piece, Charlotte. I like the idea of memorizing poetry, too. Because for a while my 7 yr. old listened over and over to the Poetry Speaks to Children CD and read a lot of Shel Silverstein, I think some of the poems stuck in his head, the way songs tend to do.


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