Memorize this

Google has replaced the need to remember much of anything. “Who starred in that movie?” “Does ‘edited’ have one T or two?” “What’s the capital of Wisconsin?”

Can’t remember? Google it.

But Caroline Kennedy, whose latest book is “Poems to Learn by Heart,” suggests memorizing poetry helps us understand someone else’s emotions, put words to universal feelings and connects people.

“You share with someone and you have this bond that I think is very intense,” she told interviewer Neal Conan. “You know you have this poem — you gave them something that means something to you and those are the best kinds of gifts to give or to receive.”

I imagine if I ever was a hostage or POW, imprisoned without so much as a dial-up internet connection and left to the games of my mind, I’d be grateful for the poems and Bible verses I’d memorized throughout my life (why I imagine I’d ever be a POW is beyond me — this is how my strange mind operates).

As I listened to her interview on NPR this week, I thought of my maternal grandfather, who loved poetry and often recited lines and verses as I spent time with him as a child. He especially loved bawdy bits (to which my little brother attached himself fully), but the poem I remember my grandfather encouraged me to memorize (he quizzed me on my recall more than once) had a lesson in its rhyming words:

The Guy in the Glass
by Dave Wimbrow

When you get what you want in your struggle for self,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.

For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife,
Whose judgment upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.

He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.

You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.


3 responses to “Memorize this

  1. I can definitely relate … my mother-in-law used to recite poetry all of the time. I inherited her poetry books when she passed. Does memorizing lyrics to songs count?!!! Thank you for reminding me that it’s time to look at my poetry book collection and decide which to keep and which to pass on!

  2. In contrast to “A.I.”, they use the term “I.A.” (“Intelligence Augmentation”) to refer to things like Google and other tools. It’s a two-edged sword. Access to so much information, but remember when we used to know our friends’ phone numbers? People now, who lose their phone, are often in deep hurt, because they’ve stopped memorizing phone numbers.

    Question: Why would memorization of a poem (which can be rote and meaningless) connect you more with the spirit of a poem than careful study? Isn’t it the study what makes it come alive? There are quite a few poems I deeply cherish, but none which I’ve memorized. I think the ability to quote a whole poem is really, really cool, but I guess I resist the idea that it’s the only path to really understanding it.

    (I’m recalling how, at one point in my youth, I noticed the prayer we said before every meal was said in that sing-songy meaningless way that occurs from thousands of reps.)

  3. My father (Monica’s maternal grandfather) indeed quoted poetry at all times. He was somewhat eccentric but he imparted intelligence to all his family members and left a legacy of words. Monica, thanks for bringing back that memory!

    Uncle Lee

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