Memorizing poems is a fun and satisfying thing to do. It stimulates my brain, warms my heart, and sometimes makes me laugh. Learning and knowing poems also brings me emotional and psychological benefits. It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I am feeling pretty unable to do very much. Poetry squirreled away in the old noggin gives me ways to express anger, love, sorrow, peace. It can also open new horizons when I am stuck in unhealthy emotional ruts.
In August 2008, I was ending a year of recovery from a pretty severe emotional blow. At that point I was pretty much back to my old self though a little wiser, a little more aware. I was feeling better but still had some low days. That, and my lifelong love of words, made it a good moment to begin memorizing poems.
When I am feeling depressed I certainly do not feel successful. Accomplishing a task like memorizing a poem is good medicine. Committing poetry to memory takes some effort. It is a task to which you need to apply your mind yet can be successful fairly quickly. Even remembering the first word is an accomplishment. Then you learn the next word and the next, and soon you’ve got a phrase or a sentence. Continue the process and one morning you wake up knowing the entire first stanza. Stick with it a little bit each day and after a few weeks you’re two-thirds through the poem. Depending on how long or short the poem is, after a month or maybe more you know the whole thing. Reciting growing portions of a poem until I can repeat the whole thing is an accomplishment that makes me feel good. It’s also a reason I promote poem memorizing. Who can’t use the pride of achieving something from time to time or regularly? I know I sure do.
I experience another emotional benefit from memorizing. A poem itself expresses emotions and feelings. People use music to mirror or help express feelings, playing loud, vigorous music to express anger or energetic to express excitement, soft and impassioned to express love. Poetry is the same. Planting poems in my mind and heart, I build in emotional release valves for myself. Depending on the topic, a poem can help me let off steam, express joy or love, admit fear, and express a range of other feelings. For example, Langston Hughes’ poem Dreams can revive hope and determination. Red, Red Rose is a tender expression of love. Michael Wiggleworth’s poetic version of Psalm 121 is a moving affirmation of faith. Sometimes, when I don’t have words of my own to express a feeling I have or to help generate a feeling I could use, a memorized poem does the trick.
Finally, learning poems opens my eyes and my mind to bigger worlds, to broader emotional vistas. At least for me, emotional dis-ease narrows my view of the world. I see and notice less around me. As I sink into a funk, I increasingly see only myself. A depression easily becomes a circle and a cycle, spiraling down, on and into itself. A poem can interrupt the spiral, can break a hole in the wall of that darkening place to a different and brighter world. A poem, not just read from a book but spoken by heart and from the heart, has the power to help move a person out of a darkening, self-focused place and into a bigger, brighter, healthier realm.
I think I’m on to something here. Memorizing poetry has been, and continues to be, an important, valuable, fun part of my day. I can work on one as I walk to work or sit on the bus. A person could even put the television on silent during commercials to go over a word or a phrase. Taking time to memorize a poem can be part of how to get and stay emotionally healthy. It was and still is for me.