Roughly ten years ago, Poet John Hollander put out a book of verse entitled Committed to Memory : 100 Best Poems to Memorize. It recently came up in a series of posts on the blog choriamb about the value of memorizing poetry. I'm a bit ambivalent about poetry memorization. The memorizing of verse is an old pedagogical technique that has largely fallen out of favor since the end of World War II and the popularizing of an educational approach that favors rigor in critical thinking over rote regurgitation of facts, referred to as "factology" in the educational literature about the subject. This is as it should be. The distinction between an educational program designed to foster critical thinking skills and one devoted to factology was one of the primary differences between U.S. and Soviet Education systems during the Cold War, and part of the reason that the U.S. war machine was able to outstrip the Soviet war machine in the 70s and 80s. As much credit as the monetarists want to take for the death of Communism, the free market had less to do with the implosion of The USSR's economy than the fact that U.S. Public Education, prior to the assaults launched on it in the mid to late 1980s, and contrary to what various pundits would have you believe, was the best in the world. All in all, giving up memorization in favor of developing critical thought was a good move.
And yet for some reason, there's this airy sort of nostalgia for reciting verse from memory. The argument is that the appreciation of poetry is enhanced by learning to regurgitate lines of verse by rote repetitions and mnemonic trickery. As it happens, I own this book by Hollander, and was surprised to see it come up on another blog so many years after publication simply because the text itself is so very boring. Exactly the sort of anthology to be expected from Hollander, in other words. It's filled with poems by the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Most of the poets are English, and most of them died before the Spanish American War. There are three twentieth century American poets in the anthology. The first is Robert Frost; four of his poems are included, and I'd be willing to bet the reader can guess which poems they are. The second is Cummings who, as middle of the road as he is, is still too radical for more than a single poem in this volume. The final is of course Dylan Thomas, and I wouldn't even take a bet that the reader can guess which of his works made the cut. These, along with one Whitman, two Dickinson (care to guess which?), one Poe (but not the one you think), one Melville, a smattering of Longfellow, and one by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and that's about it for the American writers of note in the volume, and at least two of them are best remembered more for their prose than their poetry, and another because of his success in the field of jurisprudence. I suppose there's an Emerson too, but Emerson's poetry was so bad he might as well have been British.
So why are these poems the best to memorize? Some are obvious. "The Road Less Travelled," a selection of Shakespeare's more well known sonnets, "Kublai Khan," "Do not go gentle into that good night," "Narrow Fellow in the Grass," etc. What's really strange is what's missing. No Hollow Men. No Prufrock or Wasteland. No "Why I am not a Painter," "Howl," or any Ashbery at all. Looking at the titles, it is obvious that the criteria for "Best memorized" would seem to be that quotes from the work have entered common parlance. Were that the case, though, more than one excerpt from the King James Bible would be appropriate, as would the presence of some works in translation (there are none), something from Milton (absent) and a much more extensive selection from Shakespeare than is here afforded to the reader.
One can certainly speculate all day why this might be the case, or one might say that this is an anthology with an agenda as strict and backwards looking as the conservative educational ideal that it embodies.
Which is to say, wouldn't it be better that we taught people how to read poetry before we started worrying about their being able to recite it off the tops of their heads?
I'm not saying that poetry should only be read or that people should not memorize poetry. I have poems committed to memory, and I enjoyed doing it. But it seems to me that the idea of a canonical set of poems we should all memorize is patently absurd. At the very least, not this canon.