Thursday, September 27, 2007

Memorizing Poetry as a form of "Neurobics" (ugh)

I am of the post-memorization generation of literature people -- I might have memorized a couple of poems in high school, but in college no one asked to memorize a damn thing. As a result I can only recite from memory a couple of Yeats poems and Shakespeare sonnets, which would probably horrify some senior people in my field.

Not that I mind; these days, reciting poems from memory is mainly a good cocktail party trick. Far more important to me (and my students) is interpretation.

Of course, there's no particular reason to memorize poetry other than that you like poetry. But maybe memorization in general has some neurological benefit, especially as one gets older:

“Everything was memorized, not just poetry,” said Ms. Robson, author of the forthcoming “Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.” “Knowing your lesson. The word recitation means repeating any lesson.” (She warns against too much nostalgia for the memory-happy past: “An illusion of community was created because tremendous numbers of people learned exactly the same texts.”)

Poetry memorization held, even as other rote learning slipped away. But no one could prove it helped the mind develop: “That was one of the big justifications in the last years of the 19th century — it promotes memory training,” Professor Robson said. “Then there was a whole slew of psychological tests and all they could discover was that memorizing poetry helps you to memorize poetry.”

But contemporary scientists have discovered that memorization exercises can stave off dementia, introducing a new world of “neurobics.” Memory needs a workout as much as the abs do. Researchers have even shown that reciting poetry in dactylic hexameter can help synchronize heartbeats with breathing.

Other body parts may be involved, too, as suggested by stories of transplant patients who acquire memories not their own. Mr. Engell said, “Memory has a kind of bodily presence.”

Of course the oral tradition has been declining since antiquity. Plato describes the problem in his “Phaedrus,” where a god offers King Thamus the gift of writing as an aid to wisdom and memory; the king says no thanks — it could only weaken both. The rise of literacy and literary technology did undercut the oral tradition, leading to a communication crisis that, as Eric Havelock argued in his landmark book “The Muse Learns to Write,” would be mirrored in modernity. Recent illiteracy and newer technologies compound the problem, rendering us more memory free and fact impaired than ever. (link)

I like the idea of keeping sharp by practicing memorization on occasion, though I don't particularly like the word "neurobics" (smacks too much of "jazzercize").

Needless to say, Jenny Lyn's reference to Phaedrus opens a rather large can of worms (the writing/orality questions in Derrida's Grammatology hinge on the same theme).


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