Nobody memorizes poetry anymore.
Once upon a time, it was de rigeur and scholars young and old memorized and recited astonishingly complicated, lengthy poems –The Highway Man, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Tennyson’s Ulysses, and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan… “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure-dome decree….”
But rote learning has fallen out of favour – deemed unnecessary and old-fashioned in an era when we have instant access to almost everything and struggle to remember passwords instead of poetry. Still, the idea appeals to me. One of my resolutions for 2015 is to be able to recite a single poem by heart. By heart – rather than by rote. A small but important distinction.
So I started reading poetry. Trying to find something that I really loved, something that had some meaning to me. I also started reading about whether committing poetry to memory has any effect on the brain. There’s compelling evidence that memorizing prose improves neural plasticity – and helps train the brain to remember not just the particular poem or piece of prose but also to remember more in general – to improve both recall and memory capacity. And at the same time memorizing poetry is also a tool for staving off cognitive decline.
Committing poems to memory is a lost art – and not an easy task. It turns out that quite a lot has been written on this subject. There are entire books devoted to memorizing poetry. Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s husband and once England’s Poet Laureate, wrote a book entitled, By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember in which he explains how to memorize poems using a system that becomes easier the more frequently it is practiced.
Initially, I thought I’d learn something short and sweet. The Owl and the Pussy Cat or something by William Carlos Williams, or a poem by Philip Larkin that I came across in a book I was reading. My list grew longer daily. I considered The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, Jabberwocky, or a poem by Anne Carson.
But then I came across a story about retired American college professor, John Basinger, who began memorizing Paradise Lost in 1993. It took him eight years but he learned the entire thing by heart – 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000-odd words. The academic journal, Memory, tested his knowledge by giving him two lines selected at random from different places in the text. Each time he could recall the next ten lines.
Inspired, I upped my game and picked two poems. The first, Forgetfulness by American Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and the second, Valentine, by John Fuller. I couldn’t pick between them because I love them both – they make me smile. Read them – it’s a lot easier than memorizing them, trust me. And you won’t regret it.
I have my poems printed and stuck on the side of the refrigerator so I can read them while I’m cooking. Today, while I was baking this old-fashioned self-saucing butterscotch pudding (the perfect dish to go with an old-fashioned poetry memorizing session) I was re-reading stanzas and saying them aloud. According to everything I read, reading the poems aloud several times over is the first step.
My dog, Lola is wondering why I’m talking to myself.
Old-fashioned self-saucing baked butterscotch pudding
This recipe is adapted from A Taste of Wintergreen
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Mill gluten-free baking flour mix)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 cup dark brown or turbinado sugar
- 1/4 cup butter melted (I used lactose free margarine)
- 1/2 cup milk (I used coconut milk)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup of Lyle’s Golden Syrup
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1 tbsp butter melted (or lactose free margarine or coconut oil)
Mix together the sugar, salt, flour and baking powder. Melt the butter and add, along with the milk, to the flour mixture. Place mixture in a well-buttered ovenproof 2- litre dish. Or 4-6 buttered ramekins (number will depend on size of your ramekins).
In a separate bowl, combine sauce ingredients. Pour the sauce mixture over the top of the pudding over the back of an upturned spoon so that the sauce does not break the pudding apart.
Bake at 325º F for 40 minutes (25-30 minutes for ramekins) or until the pudding is golden brown and the centre of the pudding is firm. Let the pudding stand for five minutes.
The sauce will be at the bottom of the dish. Serve with whipped cream.