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When the classroom rang with poetry

Catherine Robson traces what we lost — and gained — when kids stopped reciting out loud

A panel listened to a girl reciting at the Children’s Salon in London in May 1909.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A panel listened to a girl reciting at the Children’s Salon in London in May 1909.

Once upon a time, almost all American schoolchildren memorized and recited poetry in the course of their education. It’s easy to look back wistfully at an age where everyone carried a bit of Wordsworth around in their heads. But Catherine Robson’s new “Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem” (Princeton University Press), which compares the rise and fall of compulsory classroom poetry exercises in Britain and the United States, serves to dispel that uncritical nostalgia.

In the one-room-schoolhouse years of American education, Robson explains, recitation was the default teaching method in every subject. Many 19th-century classrooms had a “recitation bench” where young scholars would hand their books to their teachers and then recite what they’d memorized. But poetry in particular was thought to have a special power to comfort, elevate, and refine the children who memorized it. Poems were prized as tools for teaching young children to read, and helping older children appreciate literature.

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By the 1960s, however, mandatory memorization began to decline, a change fueled both by new pedagogical theories and the changing forms and social role of poetry. At the upper grade levels, rote memorization gave way to analysis as the proper way to approach literature. As for younger children, educators argued that they should be introduced to new vocabulary at a strictly controlled pace that no old poems could fulfill. Hello, “Dick and Jane”; goodbye, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Silent reading replaced recitation: “The twentieth-century classroom became a much quieter place,” Robson writes.

Meanwhile, fashions in poetry were themselves changing. The short, unironic poems that had been popular in classrooms appealed to “love for family, country, and God,” Robson writes—and they almost always rhymed, a feature that over time became shorthand for unseriousness. By the mid-20th century, poetry had become more abstract, confessional, oriented toward free verse, and challenging to mainstream culture. The poems that interested modern poets and academics were difficult to memorize, and not terribly well suited to children.

Even if the vogue for poetry memorization has passed, however, Robson, a British-born English professor at New York University, says she still sees value in it as “a pleasurable elective pursuit.” She asks her students to memorize a few lines every semester. As our interview was wrapping up, she recited Thomas Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass” from memory.

‘They’ve never been able to prove that memorizing poetry makes you good at anything other than memorizing poetry.’ - Catherine Robson

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Robson spoke with Ideas from her apartment in New York. (This interview has been edited.)

IDEAS: You don’t idealize memorization in the book. Do you think the heyday of memorization is romanticized?

ROBSON: A lot of the project was to sort of deglamorize the idea that, “Oh, in the past people had more respect for great works of literature.” There’s an awful lot of nostalgia for this world we have lost. I wanted to establish there’s a lot about those pedagogical techniques that even the most nostalgic of us now would think, well, maybe just making kids memorize things without thinking about them, maybe there was a problem with that.

Back in the day it was rote memorization in the classroom, with the whole classroom going through line 1, line 2, line 3. Some of them must have been bored to tears, because there are more playful ways of teaching the memorization of poems. The 19th-century classroom on the whole was not a very playful place.

IDEAS: Did memorization actually promote lifelong poetry appreciation?

ROBSON: In time of terrible, desperate straits when you’ve got absolutely nothing, all you’ve got is the contents of your head, and that is where a memorized poem can do incredible work. People have looked at this in Holocaust literature and gulag memoirs. There’s no gulag memoir without someone saying, “Thank goodness I’ve got Pushkin.”

IDEAS: What benefits were memorization and recitation supposed to provide to children?

ROBSON: If you go back to end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th century, it was all about elocution, learning to be an effective public speaker....Also the idea that if you had all these things inside you, then you’d have this internal stock that would improve your own writing style; you’d have all these lovely quotations you’d be able to put into your written and spoken language.

Then, throughout the 19th century, the moral importance becomes more important. It’s a way of stocking the child’s minds with good Christian religious thoughts....Then still later, once we’re into more nationalistic modes, it’s about the best that’s been thought and said in your particular language....It’s a way of celebrating the culture of the country....So it has all these different meanings at different times.

IDEAS: I love the quote from the 1902 teaching guidebook, about how memorization “impart[s] a tone to one’s spiritual system for life, rich and pure enough to outsing all baser and cruder songs, and to set the pitch of character.”

ROBSON: There’s one quotation about how it even “imparts good tone to the bowels,” so no part of the body was
untouched by this pedagogical exercise!

IDEAS: Do you have advice for adults who may be inspired to memorize a poem?

ROBSON: Rhythm and rhyme. If people want to start memorizing, it’s much easier to start with a pretty regular poem. Something like Emily Dickinson is a wonderful place to start if you’ve never done it before, because you have that absolutely driving meter and yet she does such surprising things with it. It’s a loaded gun.

IDEAS: There’s been a lot of writing and research in recent years about the importance of practice and self-control in early childhood development. Do you think we could be ready for a memorization revival?

ROBSON: I find it interesting that they’ve never been able to prove that memorizing poetry makes you good at anything other than memorizing poetry....To my mind it’s better to talk about this as a way to have great pleasure with intricately wrought language, rather than something with a function of “It will make you a better person” this way or that way. It’s something that adds richness to life rather than as this instrumental tool for other practices.

IDEAS: Are there any poems that you’d propose as candidates for a contemporary memorization canon?

ROBSON: You have to make it fun. There’s good reason why “Jabberwocky” has become a fairly often-assigned poem for memorization for 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds. I suppose I love this, too, because there’s a huge irony in that the Lewis Carroll books, particularly the first one, “Alice in Wonderland,” are really parodying the whole process of memorization. Alice recites three times in that book, and each time the Wonderland animals say, “You’ve got it wrong.”

IDEAS: Can you imagine a classroom memorization approach that’s more critical and modern? What would that look like?

ROBSON: [Teachers would have] to find some way between talking about why it’s good to have this poem inside you—that you can think about it when you’re walking around—but encouraging them to think it’s something that you can think about. It’s like this little internal gymnasium, that you can go and play in it.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.

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