In a recent article in the New York Times, I read something that spoke to me: That the modern educational system unfairly castigates the art and value of memorization to the bin of uselessness. By focusing on the learner’s “creativity”–her presumed innate ability to produce original thought and content–the system believes that other people’s words play absolutely no role in fashioning forth the learner’s expressivity.
Yet, as Molly Worthen points out, memorizing poetry, for instance, helps inculcate sophisticated thoughts and language in us, giving the memorizer “better words to make sense of themselves in their world,” that’s getting increasingly infested with the “phony free verse of Twitter and texting.”
Furthermore, Worthen argues that “a poem learned could be a lifeline–to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.”
Memorizing poetry by heart is something that I didn’t particularly enjoying doing as a grade-schooler, but it was part of our curriculum. In other words, I had to memorize poems, ranging from Wordsworth to Auden to Shelley, Byron, Keats, and the inimitable Shakespeare (I also learned Renaissance Petrarchan Sonnets by heart, just to impress my teachers by a display of my prodigious memorizing capacity). There were also the poems of the poetic icon of the (mine) Bengali world: Rabindranath Tagore.
After memorizing poems, I had to reproduce them verbatim to get good grades. A missed line, a forgotten word, would elicit sniggers from classmates and a downgrading from teachers. It would be a humiliating experiencing.
But there would also be a pleasurable component to the experiencing of memorizing poetry: a sense of empowerment that inexplicably grows into you when you find yourself as the vessel, as it were, of the best forms of expression by some of the greatest wordsmiths and Janes of Western and non-Western literature.
As a 3rd grader, I was asked to perform a poem, Rabindranath Tagore’s “Veer Purush,” in front of my entire school population, inclusive of students, teachers, and the principal. I was asked to memorize this longish poem which I didn’t relate to as the subject matter and the poem’s protagonist were far removed from my life experiences and emotional landscape. Yet, I girded my loins and spent hours memorizing “Veer Purush,” painstakingly, writing down the lines to imprint them on my memory.
“Veer Purush” emanated seamlessly from me, as I stood on stage and began with those memorable utterances of a young boy, Khoka, who fantasizes saving his mother from marauders as both son and mother undertake a long journey through foreign lands: “Mone Koro Jeno Bidesh Ghure, Maake Niye Jaachi Onek Dure” (“Imagine as if journying through the vast expanses of a foreign land, I am taking my mother far far away into unknown territories”). I remember, floating into a strange matrix where I lost awareness of who I was, so wrapped up I was with the delivery. Starting off as a nervous nelly, I emerged into the light of a well-performance–a pudgy little girl in pigtails expressing the thoughts of a wiry, “good son” figure who imagines battling demons just to prove his loyalty to his mother.
When I finished, the gathering broke out into a loud round of applause.
The memory of the memorization still stands like a rock in my mind.
Since coming to the U.S. I have stopped memorizing, falling prey to the myth of how debilitating to creativity and intellectual growth rote memory can be.
Now I am thinking of memorizing poems again, for the sheer fun of it.