[Milton-L] students memorizing poems
ehsagase at colby.edu
Sun Feb 22 15:41:17 EST 2004
In answer to a recent list question-- yes, I always have my students
memorize poems, and quite a few of them!--in all poetry lit.
classes--Renaissance, 17th c., Milton, Love and Loss in the English
Lyric, Lyric Self and Other, intro to Literary Studies--
I can't emphasize how successful this practice has been. The students
almost always express excitement and gratitude about the opportunity
to gain skill in this most close kind of reading--learning by heart.
They are usually thrilled to inhabit poems so fully they can speak
them with conviction.
[BEFORE you go on, a small warning: This is a topic I'm passionate
about. And so, yes, on rereading this message just now, I noticed it
is indeed long. So only read on, of course, if you are interested.]
I give students many choices of poems to learn, with certain
guidelines. Their treasure hunting or shopping for the poems they
want to keep is itself an intense activity, one that makes them read
lots of poems more carefully.
Often my entire final exam consists in each student learning 84 lines
of poetry, 4-6 poems. We often meet at a local cafe for them to speak
the poems to me--very memorable, or in my office, if that is more
convenient for the student. I don't have students recite before the
class with the exception of short stanzas when all class members are
collectively learning a poem and sharing the presentation of it, or
when a student is eager to speak lines before an audience.
Maybe one reason I've had such good results with poetry memorization
in my classes is because I begin every class of the semester with a
poem I know by heart. Students have said many times on evaluations
how they love this. They certainly see how it is an intense way to
know a poem.
I also recommend they memorize any poems they plan to write papers
on, as a way to be sure they've read the poems thoroughly and
experienced a sense of motivation between all lines, images, stanzas,
Dave Harper and a couple of other professors on this list I note do
some wonderful creative things with student memorization. I've also
had musical students set poems to music; one senior scholar memorized
75 Shakespeare sonnets as a final project, and all year did
Shakespeare events--coffee house performances of spoken sonnets and
sonnets set to guitar music, concerts with another student
song-writer, and presentations for local 5th graders. IN fact, when
this kid wiped out on a black-diamond ski trail at Sugarloaf with no
helmet, so his roommates tell me, all he could remember in the medic
room of the ski lodge was sonnet 18, and asked the ski patrol, "Shall
I compare thee to a summer's day?" etc. They let him go, even though
he didn't know the date!
Another highlight rooted in student memorizing: a group of talented
student film makers recently made a gem of a film: "Astrophil and
Stella, the Movie." It presents a bunch of Sidney sonnets, memorized
by the actor playing Astrophil, of course. There is no other text in
the film but these sonnets. They are shot in but in familiar but
sometimes hilarious local settings, and feature spliced-in images
enlivening the Elizabeth metaphors.
For anyone interested in how I present an assignment of memorizing,
below is a sample of an Unconventional Final Exam. This one is a
couple of years old, but usually my guidelines are similar.
(I've also presented a lot of my ideas about teaching meter and form
in early modern poetry classes in "Flirting with Eternity:Teaching
Form and Meter in a Renaissance Poetry Course" in _Renaissance
LIterature and its Formal Engagements_ [Palgrave 2002], ed. Mark
EN 314 Seventeenth Century Poetry, Sagaser, fall 2001,
Unconventional Final Exam
May "well-tuned words amaze" you anytime, anywhere.
Here is your chance to truly READ CLOSELY, to ignore no part of a
poem, to demand of yourself the imagining of a speaker's or
character's state of mind and life, discovering in some cases how
this state of mind and life overlaps with your own.
Here is your chance to fully experience the performative nature of
many seventeenth-century poems and to try your hand at playing
Here is your chance to experience how form and meter were discovered
and maintained in the interest of making poems permanent parts of
You must learn at least 5 poems, speeches, or passages from longer poems.
You must learn at least 84 lines total (you may exceed 84 lines).
You choose the poems! However, they must be distributed like this:
At least two lyric poems from the first half of the semester (pre-midterm)
At least one passage (6 lines or more) from Paradise Lost
At least one speech (10 lines or more) from A Winter's Tale
Note: meeting these distribution requirements leaves you with one
elective--another lyric poem, another passage from PL, or another
speech from WT.
Presenting Your Poems:
Make a hard copy of the poems you file in your memory, both for your
convenience learning them and for my convenience tracking your
learning. Hand this script to me when you meet me to recite your
Schedule an individual meeting with me to recite your poems. Several
days and times will be available during the finals period, both in my
office and at the Riverside Farm Market Café (very close to campus,
down Rice's Ripps Road). I'll post a sign-up sheet soon on my door.
I've offered this final four times before, and in all these
instances, nearly everyone discovered that memorizing poems is not so
hard and speaking them aloud is rather enjoyable. However, to help
reduce anxiety, I do have a second at-bat policy. If you feel badly
about your first recitation, you can schedule another without
penalty--time providing. Usually no one decides to do this, though.
Now, A Bit of Advice:
Do not delay beginning to learn your poems. Bring your script
everywhere. You can make great progress while waiting in lines, while
doing laundry, while watching football games, while working out on
the treadmill or Stairmaster, while falling asleep at night, while
eating lunch. Ask you WT actor friends for tips, and let me know if
you would like some additional advice or reassurance.
NOTE: An excellent last journal entry could be a reflection on the
process of learning your poems and an informal explanation of your
Elizabeth Harris Sagaser
Mayflower Hill Dr.
Waterville, ME 04901
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