Sunday, May 22, 2005

Poetry on NPR

This morning there was an interesting story about Poetry magazine and its Ruth Lily endowment, on NPR's Weekend edition. One of the issues brought up was about how the board of Poetry decided not to use the endowment for monetary awards to individual poets; instead they chose to use the money to increase the "audience" for poetry. Of the projects started so far: a research study to learn about America's poetry reading habits; and a program to have children once again learn to memorize poems in school, in a format almost like that of a spelling bee contest. Philip Levine (?) was interviewed saying how awful he thought it was that children would have to learn to memorize poems again; but I do not agree at all. Done well, memorizing a favorite poem is a fantastic way to make it a part of you. My partner Dean, who is not a poet but still enjoys reading poetry, still fondly remembers Robert Frost poems that he memorized in grade school, and can still recite them word for word! I wish I had the memorizing of poetry as part of my early education (we were made to memorize state capitals and multiplication tables, why not a poem?). As it turns out, it wasn't until my first year of college that my first literature professor had us all memorize the prologue of The Canterbury Tales. It has stayed with me ever since; I try to memorize a new poem once a year or so (but it gets harder as you get older to keep the new ones: there is only so much room left in the brain!). I can't think of a better way to get younger students to care about and really understand poetry again. My only concern is how the poems would be chosen. Would it be contemporary poems, or poems from the "canon?" Who decides who will be this generation's Frost or Dickinson or Auden? Does it matter?


Sculpin said...

I hope the selections will primarily be poems that the kids enjoy, rather than poems that are thought to be good for them. Pleasure is so important.

I once memorized the whole of "The Highwayman", that melodramatic old chestnut, and it was perfect for me at the time. Love! Violence! Tragedy! Everything an impressionable fourteen-year-old girl could want.

C. Dale said...

To this day, I can still recite the opening lines of Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn." My mother used to read it to us when we were in bed. Um, maybe this isn't such a good thing to admit...

jeannine said...

Dear Peter, I agree! I was lucky enough to go to a small school where 4,5, and 6th graders competed in a poetry recitation contest in front of the school and a bunch of parents - Poe and Amy Lowell seemed to show up regularly. Not to brag, okay, maybe to brag, but I won both years I tried (fifth and sixth grade) with the poems "Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town" and Louis Simpson's "My Father in the Night Commanding No." I wanted to do the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but my interfering stage mother :) (a great champion of poetry, though not a poet herself) said it would be too much of a disconnect for the audience. The first prize was the collected works of Emily D. and Carl Sandburg, respectively, and I still have them. Our teachers had us memorize poems every year, including one year when we had to memorize whole passages of Shakespeare plays of our choice. Anyway, without all this meddlesome school encouragment, I don't think I'd be writing poetry today, so I have to say, I think the poetry contest for kids is a great idea.

Suzanne said...

I agree with you, Peter, being able to recite a poem from memory is amazing--it's almost as if it's entered your heart.

There's a lot of fun poetry for kids that parents can read to them (Silverstein, Kipling, Seuss) imo it would have been great to have some early exposure to the canon in school. Maybe Poetry will manage to get it accomplished.

Peter said...

Speaking of memorizing poems: I almost forgot: Joseph Green closed the Salal Review reading Friday night by reciting one of his own poems from memory: I was so impressed: not only was it a terrific poem; but that at the end of a long night Joe could pull it off so flawlessly. I am still hanging on to one line, in which the sea at sunset was "a wrinkled sheet of copper."

I have never read even my own work from memory in front of an audience; though have seen a few poets do it.

Kells said...

Hi Peter,

I heard that as well this morning.

It wasn't Philip Levine who disagreed about memorizing poetry (Philip was complaining that not giving out individual grants to poets and instead studying who reads poetry was a waste of a 1/2 million dollars) but it was David Bottoms who made the comment about memorizing poems was a bad idea.

Yes, definitely interesting report. I'm looking forward to finding out who reads poetry and it will be interesting to see what they do with the results (if anything.)

Did you noticed that all the memorization contests happened on the East coast? That concerns me. It still feels (even with the Acad of American Poets, PSA, etc) that we are divided into two coasts, or maybe it's more like New York and vicinity... and elsewhere.

thanks for the post.


the machinist said...

memorization is important. I've got a couple of Frost poems, a handful of Dickinson, and a smattering of others from high school (including, though not a poem, 'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately' from Walden).

I'm always trying to memorize stuff, but unless I go over it every day, it never sticks.

A teach of mine knows, I swear it, everything he's read by heart--it's truly terrifying. From Wordsworth to Larkin to Bishop, he's got in down. I'd love to be able to do that.

Emily Lloyd said...


My friend Michael has had her kids memorizing poems for years (and they're only 4 & 5). I admit, it freaked me out a little when I heard they were doing "O Rose, thou art sick..." etc. Her daughter, Gus, actually talks to herself (or dolls, etc.) in blank verse. She comes up with awesome stuff!

I think this language is great for kids (and recommended Hopkins to Michael, with all that crunchy sound play)...and, as kids pick up foreign languages easily, they also (apparently) pick up poetry easily. Another Gus story: when she was 3, Michael took her to see A Midsummer Night's Dream and Gus asked who wrote the play. M. said Shakespeare. Gus said "Well, he just wrote everything, didn't he?" Gus has sinced named Michael's recently-born baby Helena (and wanted Lysander if it was a boy).

Emily Lloyd said...

Peter, I'm sorry, I should've commented in one comment, but I forgot: "My only concern is how the poems would be chosen. Would it be contemporary poems, or poems from the "canon?""

I don't know how they'll be chosen, but I do feel that metered and rhymed verse (or heavily assonant, consonant, alliterative, etc.) (and from ANY era) is particularly exciting for kids (and, of course, easier to memorize)...seems to open them up to the possibilities of language at play, and really see words, not just definitions.

Peter said...

Fun stuff Kelli/Suzanne/Em/C Dale/Jeannine/Woody/all:
Dean and I spent dinner reciting "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." What a wonderful poem! And especially after going to a memorial earlier today for the father of a friend of ours; and planting a tree in the forest for him. The poem has legs; really. Read it over a few times (or memorize it) and you will see.

Peter said...

Em: I totally agree: the metered or rhymed poems are a little more "user friendly" in terms of memorizing. But even free verse poems are good for it (maybe for more advanced memorizers?). I have a Mary Oliver poem, from House of Light: "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" that I LOVE to recite.

A. D. said...

I think both of the projects you mentioned are kind of silly uses of this money. There are better ways to acquaint young readers with poetry than through memorization and such contests aren't likely to generate new readers. Are we talking cash prizes here or what? Why does this sort of thing need 'funding'? Wouldn't the same kids who win these sorts of things compete without such an incentive?

The research study seems very silly--hmm, I wonder which member of the academy gets the funding to carry out this empirical masterwork. What could this possibly teach us that could be of any use? Why does this sound like a marketing ploy?

Let's just go back to the developmental stage where we can assume that 0% of children read poetry and work from there. How about a survey of teachers to find out what it's like to teach poetry? What works, what doesn't? How do they inspire their students (and many teachers do inspire)? This would be far more useful than knowing the breakdown of poetry consumers by demographic.

It's not a matter of marketing or raising awareness, it's one of developing a literary culture. Poetry is perhaps losing because its value is understated or ignored within our culture, not because poets or publishers are doing anything wrong.

Kells said...


RE: How about a survey of teachers to find out what it's like to teach poetry? What works, what doesn't? How do they inspire their students (and many teachers do inspire)? This would be far more useful than knowing the breakdown of poetry consumers by demographic.

****Actually, I think they said in the interview that Joseph Parisi wanted to put together sessions taught be poets to help teachers teach poetry. This idea was struck down. From the report, it seems one reason Parisi left was that the money was not going to be spent how he would have liked it spent. I think he said, "Money changes things." And so he stepped down.

Pamela said...

In Kentucky, there's an Artist in the School program, which sends poets, children's authors, visual artists, and dramatic artists into an elementary school to work with its classes. It's state-funded. Also, in many elementary school classes here, poetry and other memorization is required--it's a free way to add enrichment activities to a school (and when that school doesn't have money for a supply budget, it's a way to inject variety into teaching). I can still quote Lincoln's Second Inaugural, soliloquies from Shakespeare, and many, many poems that I had to learn in grades 1-12. I don't know if competitions like the national spelling bee are the approach to take here. If I had all that money, I'd set up matching grants to keep/improve visual art, drama, literature, and music in the schools. That's what's getting cut in all schools. One artist in the schools at 25,000 a year works with an average of 10 schools a year if she's there for a month. If he's an assembly/workshop only artist, he hits two schools a week. This is a MAJOR way that kids are exposed to poetry here. There are many workshops on teaching techniques for poetry, literature, and history offered, which many teachers cannot afford. I'd rather see some money spent to assist projects like these.

A. D. said...

I'm with Pamela.

There is a program here in Buffalo organized by a group of local teachers that puts on an annual performance which incorporates a guest poet with dance and musical performance. It's really a remarkable way for students, parents, and community members to encounter poetry. In recent years they've brought in poets like Li-Young Lee and Yusef Komunyakaa to work with the students.

David Vincenti said...

I think memorization can enhance a poem, permitting it to be "Staged" more freely, and I think it focuses the memorizer on the "good bits" - the memorable stuff that all good poems have the make them memorable. If that make sense.

Because I view it as an enhancement I'm not a fan of having kids not already into poetry memorize poems. If you weren't good in math, you remember you HATED your times tables, and probably still get bile in your throat when you think about it. There's simply no reason to force a poem to be part of that kind of memory.

Peter said...

Good points all!
I agree with you David; only have the kids who are in to poetry memorize poetry. No trauma.

Jose Luis said...


Pereira is a portuguese name, isn't it? I am portuguese. Just want you to know that I loved all that I read here and I created a link to it. If you feel like it, check it out.

Peter said...

Jose Luis: thanks for saying hi. Yes, I am Portuguese on my father's side: he was born in Hong Kong to a mixed Portuguese and Chinese family. I understand that Pereira is a very common Portuguese surname: sort of like Johnson or Smith.
I'll check you site. thanks for the link.