What does it mean to know a poem by heart?
Have you read “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke? Check it out.
Although I’ve written many poems about familial struggles, none of my own works have helped me understand the mixed feelings of love and fear that can arise in a child growing up in dysfunction like this poem by longtime University of Washington professor Theodore Roethke. I memorized it because of that gift of insight—and also because it’s rhythmically fun to say. I suppose that there are similar stories behind many of the poems that people have memorized.
I recently listened to Yusef Komunyakaa, Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer prize-winning poet, talk about how memorizing poems in school prepared him to one day be an artist (http://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/02/09/podcast-yusef-komunyakaa ). This made me think about the Poetry Out Loud finals I attended in Tacoma on March 5 and the thirteen students and their teachers who have given so much time and energy to the art of poetry. What exactly does it mean to memorize a poem? Think first of a clichéd expression: when we have memorized something, we say, “I know it by heart.”
Now, think about the difference between “knowing something by heart” and how sometimes things graft themselves to us through the blunt instrument of repetition: I know that there are pop songs and commercial jingles that I’ve heard so many times that they’ll just never go away:
Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there,
She would Merengue and do the Cha-Cha,
And while she tried to be a star, Tony always tended bar.
Across a crowded floor, they worked from 8 till 4.
They were young and they had each other:
Who could ask for more?
You know what’s next (and in case you don’t: “Copacabana.”) Or another example (also written by that same multi-talented Barry Manilow): “I am stuck on Band-Aid brand cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me…” These are just two instances, of course (think of TV show theme songs—“I’ll be there for you” and “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days,” to offer examples from the near and distant past). We all have our own lists, I’m sure.
This dynamic of unintentional memorization, of rote learning is very different, though, what happens in Poetry Out Loud, and it’s a crucial distinction for educational practices, especially in the arts. In that podcast, Yusef Komunyakaa connected memorization to becoming an artist. The poet W.H. Auden expressed something similar in his book The Dyer’s Hand where he encouraged young writers to memorize thousands of lines of poetry and to write out the poems of others in longhand: to feel the making of the poem, to inhabit the actual physicality of putting those words on the page, to experience (emotionally, kinesthetically, intellectually) a work of art.
When we learn something “by heart,” we are conveying a profound hospitality: we are inviting that poem to become part of us, to be with us always. And unlike commercial jingles and pop songs that just soak into our selfhood, we are choosing to do so: the students involved with Poetry Out Loud have invited particular poets and particular works into their hearts so that they might fully know them and so that they might share them with others. That is a stunning relationship, a generous gift, and the most powerful of educational dynamics: to carry a work of art inside of you is to have are become a part of you; to want to share it with others is to recognize the gift that a work of art can be. Such learning shows an openness to the the nuances of a complex world and to the perceptions and viewpoints of others that might create bridges across centuries, between races and gender identifications, an openness of spirit that I think Komunyakaa and Auden alluded to when they connect memorization with becoming artists.
Poetry Out Loud empowers students to shape their learning in a challenging and meaningful way. I felt privileged last weekend to hear from the thirteen young artists who made it to the Washington state finals, and I was especially glad to hear from them at the end of the program during an informal question and answer sessions; they were articulate and well-spoken (public speaking skills are another wonderful product of the program) and talked about gratitude to teachers, family, and mentors. Further, the young artists talked about the ambiguities of language and how they believed that, while working on their poems, they learned so much about the subtleties of words and meaning, about what it feels like to inhabit minds who had written out of life-experiences far different from their own.
As the arts continue to get marginalized and under-funded in our public schools and as educational assessment and outcomes become only about funneling students toward supposedly objectively measurable programs, I find national programs like Poetry Out Loud necessary to show students the transformative power of the arts and to remind people that nuance and subtlety, conflict and uncertainty—like in “My Papa’s Waltz,” a poem both of devotion and anxiety—are as integral to helping us understand who we are as any facts or equations.