In 1995, the Academy commissioned poet John Hollander to assemble a poetry anthology that emphasized the pleasure of memorization and recitation. The result was Committed to Memory, published by Books & Co./Turtle Point, in conjunction with the Academy of American Poets. Edited by poet John Hollander with an advisory committee including Eavan Boland, Thom Gunn, Rachel Hadas, Michael Harper, Anthony Hecht, Maxine Kumin, J. D. McClatchy, Robert Pinsky, Mona Van Duyn, Rosanna Warren, and Richard Wilbur, this group of classic, celebrated poems serve to emphasize the pleasure of memorization and recitation.
In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates tells a story about the invention of writing, in which the Egyptian god Thoth shows his written characters to another god, Ammon, who rebukes him: "This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves." There were stories and songs—and songs that told stories—long before there was any writing, and they were kept alive not in libraries but through a cycle of reciting, listening, memorizing, and reciting anew. Each language drew on its own resources of sound structure for the aural patterns—the kinds of rhythm and repetition of sounds, words, phrases, and kinds of phrase—that made spoken poetry sound very different from ordinary discourse and, in particular, easier to commit to memory. But even after almost three millennia of written literature, poetry retains its appeal to the ear as well as to the eye; to hear a poem read aloud by someone who understands it, and who wishes to share that understanding with someone else, can be a crucial experience, instructing the silently reading eye ever thereafter to hear what it is seeing. Better yet is reading aloud that way oneself.
This is a gathering of a hundred-and-some poems chosen specifically for memorization, and for the particularly intense kind of silent reading with which a reader prepares to remember them. Even fifty years ago—let alone a hundred—this collection might have seemed an anomaly, in that most readers tended to commit to memory short poems, or passages from longer ones, that had particularly affected them. Moreover, they had been trained at school to memorize, and to recite from memory, a considerable number of specimens of verse in English, ranging from major poetry to relics of nineteenth-century recitation pieces. It is easier to memorize texts when you are younger than when older; but the practice, learned early, can be maintained. And thus, for matured readers, memorizing a poem or passage you liked, rather than one which had been required of you (but which, of course, you may very well have gotten to like eventually), was almost a matter of course. But this is no longer the case, and memorization—along with training in reading prose aloud, of which another word shortly—has disappeared from most school curricula.
At the same time, we have suffered a rapidly accelerating decay in the quality of oral performance of text in public life: television and radio newscasters fumble pronunciations and read even minimal prose with a decreasing sense of how the written word makes sense when sounded aloud. Persons appointed by commercial or governmental institutions to speak for them frequently read text aloud as if they don't understand even the grammar of what they are mouthing. Now, as we anxiously reassess the condition of education in our country, the relations among reading, listening, and understanding become more significant. Nowhere are these relations more intensely embodied than in the matter of spoken verse. And nowhere does one learn better how to read either verse or prose aloud than by recitation from memory. Needless to say, it is an element of true literacy to be able to recognize in fiction, essay, and later poetry (with a sense of familiarity rather than by consulting a professorial footnote) the allusions to passages of great poetry of the past—not merely to Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible—that fill the stream of discourse.
The selection of poems for this collection was a collaborative effort between the editor and the Advisory Committee. All had memorized poetry when young and have since developed various kinds of poetic sensibilities of their own. Yet this is not merely a collection of favorite shorter poetry, but one carefully chosen for the pleasure and profit with which the poems would reward memorization and recital by younger readers.
A number of questions guided the choosing here. For one thing, the free verse of modernist and later poetry is very much harder to memorize than the accentual verse of nursery rhyme and older popular song, or the accentual-syllabic verse—so-called iambic, trochaic; dactylic and so forth—of literary poetry in English from Chaucer on. Rhyming accentual-syllabic verse is always a great aid to memorizing. It will be noticed that all but a few of the selections here exhibit this kind of design.
Length is, of course, a criterion as well: a single couplet would be too short (even a great epigram like John Donne's imaginary epitaph for Hero and Leander: "Both robbed of air, we both lie in one ground,/Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drowned," with its invocation of the four elements and its interplay of "both" and "one"). An otherwise wonderful set-piece like Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," at 128 lines, would be too long (although celebrated individual quatrains from it might be taken as short pieces in themselves—one thinks, for example, of "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,/And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,/Awaits alike th' inevitable hour,/The paths of glory lead but to the grave."). The poems included here range in length from the extreme instance of Walter Savage Landor's wonderful quatrain "On His Seventy-fifth Birthday" to Tennyson's "Ulysses," with seventy-three lines. And they range in degree of familiarity from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and Poe's "To Helen" and Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death" to Edwin Muir's "The Animals" and Trumbull Stickney's "Mnemosyne," poems of which most readers will not have heard.
Otherwise, these poems embrace a wide variety of genres, structures, forms, patterns, and schemes. The grouping indicated in the Contents reflects this variety in that classifications range from the formal to the thematic and rhetorical, from the sonnet (which has remained a remarkably productive loom on which remarkably different fabrics have been woven in English for over four and a half centuries) through the explicitly narrative (whether an older ballad or, like those of E. A. Robinson and D. G. Rossetti in this collection, more akin to the modern short story). The genre called "lyrical poetry" has come to include so much during the literary history of the past four hundred years that its boundaries are hard to trace: most of the poems of modernity could be called "lyric." Some of them will indeed be song-texts without the music; some will be pseudo-song-texts that have so thoroughly incorporated and internalized the figurative music of their own patterns of sound and sense that setting them to music would seem cacophonous—the French poet Paul Valéry compared it to looking at a fine painting in the light coming through a stained-glass window. But the reader and rememberer will feel throughout this section the point of the title that Yeats gave to a group of lyrics in one of his later books: "Words for Music Perhaps."
We speak of memorizing as getting something "by heart," which really means "by head." But getting a poem or prose passage truly "by heart" implies getting it by mind and memory and understanding and delight. There are many ways to memorize texts of any kind, but for verse, reading lines aloud and listening to yourself as you recite them is crucial. It is partly like memorizing a song whose tune is that of the words themselves. The kind of ordering or sequence or logical progression of parts of the poem—lines, groups of lines, stanzas, sections, verse paragraphs—will figure strongly in the way we hold it together in memory.
Different poems get remembered in different ways—a ballad or other narrative poem as opposed to a lyrical poem that unfolds in its own kind of sequence—a strophic poem or a passage of rhymed or blank verse that moves on more discursively. In memorizing and reciting, one becomes even more deeply aware of pattern and structure: stanza forms, repeating patterns of anaphora (as in Thomas Carew's lovely "Ask me no more") or refrain. We notice, too, how the argument catalogue or narrative unfolds itself through the stanzas, sections, or even groups of lines.
Certainly a poem's structure—the way in which it's put together—becomes very important; as you memorize a sonnet, you almost get to feel the way in which it can be argumentative or more expressively meditative in its structure. Shakespeare's Sonnet #18: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate," for example, is arranged in quatrains and a summary couplet, and yet its pattern is that of a catalogue of comparisons followed, in the last six lines, by a set of transcending contrasts. It avoids the logical unfolding of "If And. . . Then. . . Yes" so frequent in that mode. Compare it with the arrangement in the sonnet of the catalogue of beautiful sights in Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge." On the other hand, memorizing will make clearer than even the most studious written analysis the difference in the ways in which the octave-sestet pattern in the "Italian form" of the sonnet can be deployed: John Donne's "At the round earth's imagin'd corners" expands one long complex imperative in its first eight lines; then, starting with a "But. . .," qualifies the octave in the final six lines of the sestet. But Milton's famous sonnet on his blindness systematically bridges what we might think of as a logical space of refraction or qualification usually found between octave and sestet. His sentence "But patience, to prevent/That murmur, soon replies. . ." connects the lines and even the sections that are almost like two stanzas in this sort of sonnet, with a strong enjambment.
When memorizing a poem, too, we become aware of the resonances of particular words. For example, a memorized reading of Shelley's "Ozymandias" might very well come up with the two meanings of "mock" in "The hand that mocked them"—imitate (here, in sculpture) and ridicule or deride. And note the change of the mood of the single auxiliary verb "do" in the first refrain of Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle. - ." from imperative to indicative in the central tercets, or the subtle shifts in meaning of the second refrain. This poem also exemplifies the form called "villanelle." With its repeating double refrains, a poem like this is rather easy to memorize; on the other hand, reciting it aloud, "performing" it—as will be seen in a moment—presents interesting challenges to the intonation and emphasis given to repeated elements.
Having recorded a poem in your memory is one thing. Playing what's been recorded is another. A perfectly played and recorded tape or CD can sound like a disaster on faulty equipment handled ineptly. So with a memorized text. Performing a poem can mean any one of a number of things. Anyone who has heard a poetry reading cannot fail to observe that some poets read their work aloud very well indeed. They read the poems for their meaning, rather than to express their personal presences: the "performance" in this case is more like that of a musician playing—and thereby interpreting—a solo piano piece, say, than it is like what has gotten to be called "performance art" (a sword-swallower or fire-eater or stand-up comic). In reciting a poem aloud, you are not like an actor, coming to understand, and then to feel yourself in a dramatic part, a fictional person. It's rather that you come to understand, and then to be, the voice of the poem itself.
Several matters are crucial to a good playback of what your memory has stored. One of the first is that of voice itself. I've noticed that college and even graduate students today, when asked to read aloud in class, mutter and mumble rather than speaking out—or speaking up. Doubtless, some of this can be attributed to a fear of sounding pompous, orotund, empty and phony, qualities associated with the loud and elaborated speechifying of dubious politicians and preachers, or of simply shouting like the voice-overs on automobile commercials. But whatever its general or particular personal causes, this reticence has to be overcome, and a little practice will allow you to project your voice, finding the right level without seeming over-loud or shrill. Then comes intonation, the matter of the sound of making sense. It is through control of tone of voice—of pitch and stress—that we orally represent the various ways in which short sentences or clauses, and long, periodic ones, perhaps stretching across many lines, can be understood. Contrastive stress is very important in English—consider the difference between "this book, that book" and "this book, that cup," and the way the italicization indicates which of the two syllables in each pair would be stressed. Poems are full of invisibly italicized contrasts of this kind, and your reading should realize these.
Central also to reading verse aloud is the handling of enjambment. Obvious cases are those of, say, the lines from Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness" quoted earlier. Or these from Keats's "To Autumn": "And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep/Steady thy laden head across a brook"—where you would want to I override the line-break almost completely in your reading of it, instead of pausing as you might naturally do at the rhyme-word, "keep." But many enjambments are gentler and subtler than these, the line-break cutting into the syntax less violently, and you eventually learn to deal with these, only gently acknowledging by your tone and near-pause the interplay of line-end and sentence-flow at each point.
Tone is particularly important in comical or light verse: too much underlining of what the lines themselves are clearly doing is like jabbing a finger in the shoulder of a listener as you tell a joke to make him or her "get the point." Less obvious but even more important can be the emotional and rhetorical "tone" of a dramatic lyric, like Blake's "The Tyger," or a monologue, like Browning's "My Last Duchess"—in each case you have to decide who the speakers are, what they know or realize about what they're saying, and so forth. The more you understand a poem and see its complexities and depths, the more you will be able to do when reading it aloud.
As you recite a poem, you know how long it is, and how long each section or part of it is. Your listeners—unable as silent readers do to glance down the page or riffle through successive ones—may not. As in a musical performance, your reading, as well as acknowledging the section-breaks, will have to build toward its conclusion. And while a melodramatic, grandiose, or corny ending is always unfortunate, it is still necessary to indicate with your voice in some way that the poem has come to an end. If the poem ends wittily or pointedly, tying up its formal or narrative or conceptual loose ends in any way, you need do little to color this with your tone. If it fades away, as many lyrics do, you may have to do a bit more.
Hearing enough good recitation will enable you not only to memorize, but also to read other poetry with its sound in your mental ear. Of later twentieth-century poets, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, W. S. Merwin, and Thom Gunn are known for their abilities as outstanding public readers of poetry, and any recordings of their readings will be valuable guides to the questions just discussed. And finally, in the case of any good poem, remember the old proverb about thrift and the revision of it by the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland: "Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves."
At the round earths imagin'd corners by John Donne
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats
The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
When I Consider How My Light Is Spent by John Milton
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day, Sonnet #18 by William Shakespeare
Not marble nor the guilded monuments, Sonnet #55 by William Shakespeare
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Composed upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth
The Spacious Firmament on high by Joseph Addison
From Milton: And did those feet by William Blake
The Tyger by William Blake
Afton Water by Robert Burns
A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns
So we'll go no more a roving by Lord Byron
Ask me no more by Thomas Carew
Break of Day by John Donne
When Malindy Sings by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
Love (III) by George Herbert
Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
To Celia by Ben Jonson
To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace
The Mower's Song by Andrew Marvell
A Litany in Time of Plague by Thomas Nashe
To Helen by Edgar Allan Poe
Coronach by Sir Walter Scott
Blow, blow, thou winter wind by William Shakespeare
When that I was and a little tiny boy by William Shakespeare
The Splendor Falls by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
From In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Tears, Idle Tears by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Song of Myself, XI by Walt Whitman
A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal by William Wordsworth
They flee from me by Thomas Wyatt
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 by Anonymous
Brahma by Ralph Waldo Emerson
From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Edward Fitzgerald
The World by George Herbert
To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick
If— by Rudyard Kipling
Up-Hill by Christina Rossetti
Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
Go, lovely rose! by Edmund Waller
The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
Lord Randall by Anonymous
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
anyone lived in a pretty how town by E. E. Cummings
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Ode on the death of a favorite cat by Thomas Gray
The Oxen by Thomas Hardy
La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats
The Owl and the Pussy-cat by Edward Lear
Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson
An Apple Gathering by Christina Rossetti
The Woodspurge by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
All the world's a stage by William Shakespeare
Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer
From Snow-Bound, 11:1-40, 116-154 by John Greenleaf Whittier
Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
Stanzas by Emily Bronté
To a Waterfowl by William Cullen Bryant
From Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron
Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson
Mending Wall by Robert Frost
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendall Holmes
Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins
To Autumn by John Keats
On His Seventy-fifth Birthday by Walter Savage Landor
Snow-Flakes by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Shiloh by Herman Melville
The House on the Hill by Edwin Arlington Robinson
From Adonais, 49-52 by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith
Mnemosyne by Trumball Stickney
Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson
From In Memoriam by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson
A noiseless patient spider by Walt Whitman