Friday, June 15, 2012

Using the Muse

There's a wee bit of controversy in England over a recent proposal by Education Secretary  Michael Gove to make the memorization and recital of poems a mandatory part of an overhaul of Elementary school education. No, seriously. There are actually people who are against this for various reasons, some are against 'rote learning' and others think it will be humiliating for the kids. Never mind the fact that memorizing a poem is very different from memorizing facts or figures, or that fear of public speaking is the most common fear (and public recitals can help one to overcome this), studies show conclusively that people who memorize poems are 57% sexier to the opposite sex. OK, maybe they don't, but they just ought to. For real? Is this where we are as a civilization? Learning poems by Shakespeare, Milton, Gwendolyn Brooks, or Langston Hughes is a bad thing? Where people are against having kids memorize poems? Despite the fact that studies actually do show that memorization improves ones working memory and that leads to higher fluid intelligence and greater problem solving skills? And that gains made in this area by small children tend to stay with them throughout life? (Yes, I'm saying that having kids memorize poems makes them smarter, in a quantifiable way) Not to mention giving them a greater appreciation for good writing? And significantly improving their cultural literacy? This article in Salon looks at the issue and sheds some light (and reason) on the subject. When I was teaching creative writing I made it a point to have my students learn at least one poem that they didn't write, by heart. Not just because I wanted them to know a poem, but because the best way to really dig a poem is to learn it inside and out. Not to mention that you can't be a great writer without exposure to great literature (and this is true of all art forms) and the more exposure the better. The more we learn about the ways we learn, the more we learn that this is true. A poem known by heart can also work as a litany, or prayer, something you swing like a sword to ward off stress or even to spark a moment of meditation. I learned by accident that reciting "Love Song" by Henry Dumas helped me to deal with awkward post-coital silence, and made women fondly remember me years later as "that goofy guy who was clumsy at sex but recited a really lovely poem for me and made my day", not that I learned it for that reason. You'd be amazed at how many situations can be made better by just adding a recited poem, is a panhandler accosting you on the street? No problem, hit them with a few lines of Emily Dickinson [I heard a fly buzz when I died . . . ], is a paranoid schizo ranting at you on the subway? Try some Dylan Thomas [Do not go gently into that good night], awkward moment on a date? Shakespeare to the rescue [Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?] Can't remember the play in the huddle? Try some Claude McKay [If we must die . . . ] Kid need some advice? Gwendolyn Brooks [We real cool]. I guarantee you, it works every time, mostly. The truth is that participation in various art forms, whatever the art form, makes us all not only smarter, but gives us a greater appreciation for beauty and therefore for life itself. And that can't possibly be a bad thing. So help make the world a better place, learn a poem by heart today, it doesn't have to be long or deep, (or even one of mine), but you'll be surprised at how much better your cereal will taste in the morning because of it (OK, maybe not). Personally, I think we should all learn at least five poems by heart, including one happy poem, one sexy poem (whatever that means to you), one sad poem, one really beautiful poem and one poem that you don't fully understand, but would like to. Try it, you might like it.

And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon).
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