A fellow children's literature blogger, Chicken Spaghetti, brought to my attention John Holt's essay Got Poetry? which appeared online in the April 2 New York Times Book Review. The essay expounds on the benefits of memorizing poetry... from the point of a baby boomer. I thoroughly enjoyed the article and felt encouraged about my secret sideline. On the sly, I have been memorizing poetry for about ten years now. It all started when I began teaching English at the French lycée where primary school students are required, in their French language classroom, to learn, memorize, and recite poetry on a regular basis. I'm talking 6- to 10- year old kids! Every year, they began class with a new poetry cahier, and to my observation, they never question that poetry is part of their school work, just like math, or geography, or science. Even the requirement of reciting in front of their classmates doesn't seem to faze them. Memorizing poetry is just something they do. For me, it was beginning teacher's luck, a gift handed to me on a silver platter, for it was quite an easy thing to transfer this poetic rigueur into their English class. And so, I included the memorizing of a poem per trimester during my first year of teaching, and ever since, it's been a poem a month. The amazing and wonderful thing is that not only do the children do it almost effortlessly, they lap it up, they love it, and poetry time is a happy and relaxed time for them. (And anyone who knows the French system of education knows that there's not much relaxing going on!) Refreshingly, no one speaks of how horrible it is to have children learn by rote! The memorization frees them from the shackles of bad speech (and the incessant use of the word "like"), and the enjoyment that ensues has everyone feeling as pleased as punch.
Mais revenons à nos moutons: As my students memorized their monthly poems, I too would memorize the same one I was requiring them to learn, and was surprised at how utterly empowered it made me feel. From that point on, I began to learn poems on my own on a regular basis and I continue to this day. At first, I went out and bought Committed To Memory, 100 Best Poems to Memorize, edited by John Hollander, and just dove in! Since then, I've continued to buy wonderful anthologies, but I've also branched out and bought books of individual poets. There is something absolutely wonderful about being able to declaim beautifully crafted words. There is something absolutely invigorating about making one's brain crunch the words before getting to the place where the words free themselves within the brain and you just run with it. I am hooked. I don't write poetry, but the discovery that I can memorize and enjoy it has been a wonderful new avenue of awareness for me.
And speaking of poetry for children: Of course, my primary school students adore the poems of Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Douglas Florian, Nikki Giovanni, and Bobbi Katz - that goes without saying. But get this: they also adore Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, Ted Hughes, Ogden Nash, William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Parker, and Lewis Carroll - not too shabby, n'est-ce pas?
I recently came across Norman Shapiro's fabulous La Fontaine translations, The Complete Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. Because the fourth graders had already learned La Cigale et la fourmi in French, I took advantage of this opportunity to introduce the idea of the translation of great works of literature and I had them learn and memorize The Cricket and the Ant. It turned out to be a good bilingual project and one that got many of them thinking about interpreting not only words but meaning and pleasure. What a declamation there was the day we recited! Might we have some budding poets in our midst? Aspiring translators? Future interpreters? I can only hope so.