New Jersey Poetry Out Loud turns 10 this year! During the 2014-15 school year CavanKerry will celebrate this significant anniversary by inviting New Jersey teachers and students to write about their NJPOL experiences.
This is the 2nd piece by Holly Smith, a Language Arts teacher and departmental coordinator at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, NJ. She was the first recipient, in 2013, of the CavanKerry Press scholarship to the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching because her student, Cameron Clarke, was the state runner-up that year.
As a teacher of writing and literature, I never ask students to do what I cannot do myself. I, as much as humanly possible, write to their essay prompts and play guinea pig for my own methodologies.
As my students are memorizing a piece for our in-class recitation for Poetry Out Loud, I also memorize a piece. I only perform it if they wish me to, and in the order they ask me to.
In class, my students (some who had taken a Shakespeare class or who had done Koranic recitation) weighed in on collective wisdom on how to memorize. Really memorize. Not the photographic-memory-wing-and-a-prayer-night-before stuff they had been trying to shill in their lit classes for years.
Here is our list. The all caps emphasis mine.
How to memorize:
- Re-write the text (by hand) to match the line breaks as you will recite, not as written on the page. Use punctuation as a guide to help your pacing, etc.
- Never practice sitting down. Try to practice in the manner in which you will be reciting (standing, moving, etc)
- Memorize one part before moving on to the next one. Build the memorization line by line. Then stanza by stanza.
- Get as many inputs as possible. Record yourself reciting and listen to it. Recite it to yourself during your daily life (getting dressed in morning, walking to school, etc). Even once you are “off book”, read the text as you recite, etc. Idly recopy the poem at various points in your day.
- Practice by reciting it to friends.
- When you actually memorize something, you remember it for life. LAST MINUTE DOES NOT WORK. YOU ARE FOOLING NO ONE.
- And no boo-hooing, poetry recitation was a very common school assignment for CENTURIES.
I do not have the time to agonize over a selection. I know I will force myself to pick a longer piece, and a pre-20th Century work, for now. But other than that, I give myself five minutes, tops, to pick a piece.
Last year, having just come back from a summer vacation spent visiting Haworth and the very moors where the Bronte sisters wrote, I choose an Emily Bronte piece was a way to hold on to that connection I felt with her.
With the Bronte poem, I spent my morning commutes living with it, building my memorization line by line, stanza by stanza. And I had to find my own way into the poem, trying not to have the literature teacher crutch of explication. I tried to link the voice with something in my own life, much as my students would be doing. In my own coming to terms with the poem, I turned my address towards someone who the demands of work and life forces me to grudgingly turn away from. My muscle memory of those weeks is of walking down a hill past a Colonial Era cemetery at day break, thinking and speaking: “Why did the morning rise to break/So great, so pure a spell?” The anger and anguish of being ripped from a world of dreams became mine.
This year, I just picked a letter. “T” and came up with “Thoughtless Cruelty”. The imagery reminded me of “The Fly” by William Blake, so my immediate instinct was “Ah ha! Paired poems for my Romanticism unit!” I choose you, Charles Lamb.
But that was my teacher brain speaking.
So, as the Dodge Poetry approach teaches us, back to Beginner’s Mind. I read the poem to myself a few times, immediately letting go of line breaks and trying to find the conversation in the poem. And the surprise to me in the poem is that it is a teacher-like voice speaking.
I shall embrace the object lesson of the fly handed to me by the poem. And await for the surprises bringing the poem in the world brings to me.
This is what I will actually use to memorize the poem:
You have killed that fly
And should you thousand ages try the life you’ve taken
To supply, you could not do it
You surely must have been devoid of though and sense
To have destroyed a thing which no way you annoyed
You’ll one day rue it
Twas but a fly perhaps you’ll say
That’s born in April dies in May
That does but just learn to display his wings one minute
And in the next is vanished quite
A bird devours it in his flight
Or come a cold blast in the night, there’s no breath in it
The bird but seeks his proper food
And providence whose power endued that fly with life
When it thinks it good may justly take it
But you have no excuses for’t
A life by nature made so short less reason is that you for sport
Should shorter make it
A little thing you rate
Do not estimate a creature’s pain by small or great
The greatest being can have but fibres
And these the smallest ones possess
Although their frame and structure less
Escape our seeing