What’s wrong with a little memory work anyway? In past decades, a requirement of learning English in Canadian elementary schools was a certain amount of memory work. It usually was in the form of poetry. One would be asked to choose a poem and commit it to memory; the teacher would dutifully record the number of lines memorized in her special record book. There was normally a prize for the person with the most lines memorized at the end of each term. It seems to me that a certain amount of rote memory exercise is helpful to the learning process. We are, after all, still tested for some exams on our ability to recall thoughts and ideas. But poetry gives the memory experience a whole other dimension. Webster’s defines poetry as “an imaginative awareness of experience, expressed through sounds and rhythmic language” – or – “an artistic representation of what it feels like to experience the emotions of a human being”. Robert Frost once wrote, A poem begins with a lump in the throat. Something would be missing in my everyday life if I could not call to mind a few lines of poetry, memorized long ago, when I find myself in certain situations.
While walking in woods on a summer’s day, to recall the words of Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ seems most uplifting. Here is an excerpt. I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair. Or in autumn, while in the meadow with Fergus the Lab, the ability to quote from Wilfred Campbell’s ‘Indian Summer’ adds to the tranquility of the experience. Along the line of smoky hills The crimson forest stands. And all the day the blue jay calls Throughout the autumn lands.
In the depths of winter, I call upon the words of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ to enhance the sensory experience of silent snow. Whose woods these are I think I know, His house is in the village though. He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The foregoing excerpts are only a few of the poems that often come to mind. Even to be able to quote a bit of Shakespeare when words of wisdom are needed can be fun. Lines like “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark” (Hamlet), “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet), or “Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep” (Henry IV), bring metaphorical depth to certain situations.
On the very day my father passed on to eternity, Dad and I were able to recite together our favourite lyric by Robert Frost, ‘The Pasture’. It is a moment in time I will forever cherish. I was thankful that he had instilled in me the desire to both read, appreciate, and to memorize so many wonderful poems. Our sons have been raised to be lifelong learners and have caught the same bug of using quotes in many situations. Our younger son, Andrew, recently took it to another level while he was outside on a very snowy day in early January. He carefully observed the behaviour of a white-breasted nuthatch for several minutes and subsequently found himself inspired to create the following poem that captures a beautiful snapshot of the little bird.
The Nuthatch By Andrew Appleton
Oh little Nuthatch, upon the tree His feathery throat ruffled by the breeze. A proud pointed tail and little black hood. With a slate grey back like the Maple tree’s wood. His upside’s his downside. While on the tree-side’s lea side He sits inverted and safe From the wintery wind.
For what he awaits I’m not quite sure. But the winter is sweet And his heart is pure.
Recalling and creating poetry can definitely be ‘food for the soul’.