[Milton-L] memorizing passages

lschwartz lschwart at richmond.edu
Tue Feb 24 11:42:31 EST 2004

----- Original Message ----- 
From: <jfleming at sfu.ca>
To: <milton-l at koko.richmond.edu>
Sent: Monday, February 23, 2004 5:21 PM
Subject: [Milton-L] memorizing: passages

> Dear Alan and all,
> I don't doubt that memorizing passages is a useful and pleasant activity.
I do doubt that it is the kind of useful and pleasant activity that
constitutes literary study.


I'm not sure that anyone has argued that memorization "constitutes" literary
study.  In any case, your own first sentence ought to make you back off from
the subsequent reduction of other people's arguments to their absurd
extreme.  Memorization *is* a useful and pleasant activity, and it is useful
for, among other things, literary study.  It is not the whole thing, not
synonymous with study, but a powerful technique in the aid of study.  In
fact, I'm pretty sure that certain features of a poem are almost unavailable
for study--certainly for easy study, and certainly for beginning
students--without memorization or at least without repeated practice at
recitation.  Things like the subtle and very complex relationship between
matters of tone, inflection, variant prounciations, idiomatic phrasing etc.
and more abstract matters of meter and syntax (in other words, all the
things that go into the manifestation of poetic rhythm, which doesn't--we
should all realize--simply exist in the poem sitting on the page, it has to
be enacted, performed, either in the imagination or in the mouth or in
both). That such relationships (and their range of possible manifestations)
are *essential* parts of a poem should go without saying.  They are part of
what determines the range of semantic effects you can derive from or argue
about in a poem, no?

This leads me to the other thing you allow:  pleasure.  It should also go
without saying that the serious study of aesthetic objects must include the
serious study of pleasure, its functions, its relationship to semantics,
etc.  It is often not so easy to separate pleasure and semantics, and he
difficulty is often, as we all know, a matter if explicit thematic concern
to a lot of poems.  While you can make a good deal of headway into the
semantics of a poem by studying etymology, morphology, and the relevant
referential fields (history, biography, theology, what-have-you), you can't
think seriously about pleasure until you've felt it.  Memorization is not
the only way to the pleasure of a text, but I don't think anyone would
seriously argue that it doesn't enhance it significantly and make it easier
to contemplate both its effects and how they are produced.  I'm an
experienced enough reader of poetry to read a text in the classroom cold in
a way that both gives me and the attentive students a fair amount of
pleasure.  After study, I do it better because I have a better grasp on
semantics and etc.; after memorization I also do it better because I have a
greater grasp of what the structure and sematics allow in terms of
performance and can choose consciously from among those various
possibilities and the readings they express.  I can also begin to argue, if
I think it's important, about why the poem allows these readings.  What it
means, in other words, that it does.  Most of my students can't make much of
a poem cold, can't even do all that much with these aspects of it after
study, but they can after memorization that is informed by their studies.
Some can imagine a performance of the poem in their minds at an early stage
of acquaintence, but they can't perform it themselves, let alone argue about
which performances conform best with what they've discovered or suspect
about the semantics, not to mention which ones reveal other possibilities in
the semantic field.  Memorization is the only techique I know of that can
very quickly make students aware of all of the possible ways of, for
example, inflecting and stressing a line in context, enabling them then to
argue about why the poet may have constructed the line in such a way as to
allow these readings and not others.  It is also a huge help in getting stud
ents to internalize differences in style so that they can better identify
and work with the idioms and styles particular various historical periods
and authors.  Having a fair amount of verse by heart makes it far more
likely that you will pick up either deliberate or accidental echoes of one
poet's language in another's.  And, as we also all know, such echoings are
central to the practice of a lot ot poets (some more consciously than
others) and a key way in which poems situate themselves in relationship to
other poems and discourses, a part in other words of what they mean.

>[material omitted]
>But my point is precisely that _the pedagogy of belles-lettres, in which
>memorization/locution surely belongs, conforms completely to scientific
>standards._ It conforms to the scientifistic idea of the arts as
non-science, and >therefore as divorced from any serious claim to knowledge.
To do memorization >because "that's what we do" is not to assert the
position of literary study among >the discipines. It is, rather, to accept
the place of no-place, defined by intellectual >easiness and epistemolog!
>  ical emptiness.
> Or am I completely wrong?

You are completely wrong.  I'll repeat myself in stronger terms, in the
study of aesthetic objects like poems or novels, it is intellectually
irresponsible to ignore the aesthetic dimensions of texts.  If memorization
is a way to access the pleasure of the text and make it available to study,
then it is a useful pedagogical tool.  No one has said, or should say--I may
have missed something in the deluge of posts--that we do it simply because
"that's what we do."  It is one of the things that we can--and I would
argue, should--do because it makes it easier, not to mention more
pleasurable, to study poems.  No one imagines that a capacity to give
pleasure of various kinds and toward various ends is an important aspect of,
say, lead atoms and so I don't expect chemistry or physics professors to use
class time to discuss the pleasure they derive from the interaction of such
atoms with the atoms of other elements and so forth.  I do, however, expect
that they try and convey to their students--the beginning ones
especially--the pleasure *they* take in the process of investigation.  I
also assume that whatever knowledge they derive from that process might have
implications for human pleasure--the creation of a compound that might be
used, for example, by human beings for pleasurable purposes of one kind or
another (or that might be used safely or not, etc.).  I'm therefore not even
sure that the creation of such compound or a pleasurable object made of it
in a lab, along with some talk about how the pleasure you get from it might
be improved or not by the careful application of proper techniques, is at
all inappropriate to a science classroom.  In any case, that's up to the
scientists not to me.  I assume that they will grant me the same courtesy
and let me decide what is appropriate or not or useful or not in the study
of a poem.

And just to say something about the idea you attribute to scientists (that
they think anything not scientific in their terms is "divorced from any
serious claim to knowledge");  I'm not at all sure that most scientists
think this way, and it's a good thing, too, because it's a stupid idea, and
not worth much discussion.  Our discipline something both simple and
complicated:  We study literary texts.  They are the objects of our study,
and we confer on our students and readers knowledge of these objects, their
relationship to other objects of study (texts and other
things--philosophical discourses, advertisements, donkeys, gunpowder,
whatever...).  We are concerned with their history, their meaning, their
shape, how they are distributed and exchanged, valued and used.  Also what
determines all these things (and some others) and how they determine each
other, etc..  If memorization and recitation exercises help us to do some of
these things, then that's our own business, not theirs.


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