“Memorizing Poems Puts Good Stuff in My Mind—It’s the Mental Equivalent of Doing Yoga”

From a Wall Street Journal story by  Stephen Miller headlined “Poetry and the Art of Memory”:

About 18 months ago, at age 79, I gave myself a new task: memorize 30 poems in five languages. I’m about halfway there—I’ve learned 15 poems in four languages. Did I give myself this task because I worry about my cognitive decline? Was I trying to “pave new neural roads,” as Lisa Genova writes in “Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting”?

Like many Americans, I’ve seen dementia up close and personal. My wife’s stepmother went from forgetful to paranoid to zombielike. Since there is no history of dementia in my family, I don’t give it much thought, yet six months ago I had an unsettling senior moment: I couldn’t think of the word “scone.” I said to my wife: “You know those delicious not-too-sweet things we often had in London?” She replied: “Scone?”

It doesn’t bother me that I forget people’s names or where I put my glasses, but forgetting the word for something I like to eat was disturbing. A few weeks later I couldn’t think of the name of the Italian soup I love—cioppino. It came to mind after an hour.

But my decision to memorize poems had nothing to do with forgetting words for food. I gave myself this challenge after reading the New York Times’s obituary of the literary critic Harold Bloom, who died in 2019. Bloom claimed he could recite “the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene.’ ” If Bloom could memorize several epic poems, surely I could memorize 30 short ones….

When I was in high school, progressive educators looked down on memorizing. Rote learning, it was argued, hampers creativity. But being creative requires a knowledge of the field you want to be creative in.

In “The Book of Memory: A Study Of Memory in Medieval Culture,” Mary Carruthers argues that before the advent of print it was commonplace for scholars and writers to cultivate the art of memory. In “The Art of Memory,” Frances Yates says many Renaissance writers pursued this art. Nowadays our minds are busy trying to memorize passwords.

I made my task relatively easy by choosing to memorize poems with no more than four stanzas. So far I’ve learned poems in English, French, Spanish and German. I’m working on a poem in Italian.

Memorizing poetry puts good stuff in my mind, something to draw on when negative thoughts stir up anxiety, which occasionally happens when I’m stuck in traffic or lying awake at night. Reciting a poem is for me the equivalent of doing yoga.

Recently at a traffic light I recited Wallace Stevens’s difficult poem “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man,” which ends with the lines “the life / That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze.” Stevens implies that having an imaginative mind—a mind that is attuned to the natural world—makes life more “fluent.” The second stanza begins: “Could you have said the bluejay suddenly / Would swoop to earth?” My life is more fluent because of the poems I have memorized.

Stephen Miller is the author of “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art.”

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