Eating Your Words

There is a difference between kissing and talking about kissing.  There is a difference between dating and marriage (apparently).  And there is a difference between reading and memorizing, which is actually what I’m considering here.

I took my students to a writing workshop last week, and one presenter explained the importance of memorizing poems.  That while reading is critical, memorizing is ownership.  I have a great deal of trouble memorizing.  I read like bulimics eat.  I have trouble slowing down.  I am too impatient to digest.  And even more trouble taking small bites and tasting.  Emily Dickinson helps me with this.  She’s so dense and stingy that she forces my attention.

In high school, I was assigned to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquy.  I also memorized Juliet’s “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”  I can’t say it was like pulling teeth.  It was more like trying to shove teeth into your mouth, implant them somewhere up there without a mirror or glue.

I already felt ownership of my language.  My brain waves with iambic pentameter– I grew up on Mother Goose and Protestant hymns.  The smell of English poetry was mine the way Old Spice was my dad.

That kind of ownership is deep stuff, without subtlety or particularity.  With that kind of ownership, I could wax easily about what Shakespeare meant.  I could even write a passage of faux Shakespeare.  I loved writing my own dictionary definitions in 6th grade.  It was much faster than looking them up.  I was never caught.  However, I was caught adding an extra chord to a Mozart piece, and my piano teacher laughed at my insistence on “improving” Mozart.  See, I’m a showoff dilletante.  While I could demonstrate rhythmic and thematic and style understanding, I didn’t own a particular piece.  The generalities were mine and the details swept through my fingers.

My junior English teacher didn’t know or care about my struggle to memorize.  He was just going to sit there with the text while I recited.  (He told us we had to memorize poems so that we wouldn’t go insane if we were trapped in a POW camp.  Funny…and wise.)  There was no way I would screw up an English assignment.  So I shoved Frost and Shakespeare into my mouth, piercing word by word.  I recited to the shower tile.  I recited to the popcorn popping on the stove.  After fifty repetitions, I still got lost and substituted words and mixed up phrases.  I kept going.

Memorizing gives words a sensuality that reading cannot.  Reading once, even reading aloud, you can’t feel the words in your mouth the same way you do when they are memorized.  And the difference is commitment:  time and tenderness toward each sound.

The poems are still there as much as my teeth are– drilled out and refilled, and five of them just gone.  It is good to be able to run your tongue over them, occasionally.  Several times, I’ve silenced students by setting aside the textbook and doing the Juliet speech myself.  I’m not a great performer.  It doesn’t show that I understand Shakespeare.  It just shows is that I own a little of Shakespeare, and I hope it shows that he is affordable.

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