Each poem is a one-of-a-kind collage of sounds that tickle the tip-of-the-tongue and a rhythmic hammering that sparks a tap-of-the-toe.
Poetry is a larger part of our world than we often admit. It’s the songs we sing, commercial jingles, rap, billboards, and YouTube. Poetry is headlines, Facebook, and blogs. Poetry is in great books and essays. Poetry is everywhere!
And so poetry is worth our while—worth reading, worth writing, worth speaking out loud, worth memorizing.
This past winter, when I challenged my writing apprentices to memorize a poem, I had to endure another collective groan, “Noooo…!” And when I showed them the poem they would have two weeks to memorize, they went pale and were silenced.
The poem “Television” by Roald Dahl was the perfect poem for this project not only because we were exploring the theme “Unplug” in our writing workshop, but because if was long enough to prove the vast potential of their ability to memorize.
The lesson began, “Memorized poems fill the pantry of our imagination with food that is sure to sustain us in lean times. If you don’t believe, read Frederick, by Leo Lionni.”
I went on, “I know, these days we’re not used to memorizing long passages of traditional poetry. But, wait think about all the memorizing we do on a daily basis!”
We generated a list and I saw color return to their cheeks.
Row, row, row your boat…
The wheels on the bus go round and round…
Peter Piper picked a peck…
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there…
I shared a story about my oldest Hannah being able to recite all of Beatrice Potter’s Peter Rabbit when she was three simply because I read it to her so often, “Memorizing is something you are equipped to accomplish!”
Still, I was struck by downcast attitude of my writing apprentices, as if this was the most arduous task on the planet. Can you say “Mountain from a molehill?” It was actually painful to watch them shilly-shally.
I’m happy to report that by the end of week one most of them found their footing. By the beginning of week two, they were having so much FUN that I announced we would be making a film of the project. We would turn Dahl’s poem into a documentary.
Here’s how I helped them break the memorization into manageable bits:
1. Begin with a close reading. This poem is a very long single stanza. Count the sentences in the poem. Translate each sentence into your own words. Write out each translation on a piece of paper.
2. Copy the poem, one sentence at a time and say the sentence slowly as you write.
3. Break the poem into small, manageable sections. Read and repeat one line at a time from a section without looking. Listen to the rhythm. Read the next line from this section, then repeat (without looking) the two lines. Continue on in this manner.
4. Once the entire poem is memorized, breathe life into your reading by going back to your close reading notes. Use your voice to add inflection.
At the end of the list I promised, “Soon you will not only have the poem memorized, but you carry the poem in your heart.”
And they did.
And they do.
So before summer slips too far away, plan an UNPLUG activity or two… and please, please, please, memorize a poem!