All the Wisdom of the Ages

Memorizing poems sucks at the time, but it will make your life richer.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

If I were going to encourage you to take any one class simply because it’s good for the freshman soul, I would say this: Take some introductory literature class that forces you to memorize poems, heaps and gobs and mounds of poems, old poems. Preferably, this class will be taught by some elderly gentleman composed almost entirely of dandruff and corduroy, who took precisely such a class from William Butler Yeats himself, back before dandruff and corduroy were first invented.

I took high school English from just such teachers, who forced me to stand up and recite great swaths of Macbeth, and The Tempest, and Hamlet while they sat barricaded behind their Paleozoic desks and laughed at me. It was terrifying, and—at the time—it seemed rote and silly and futile, a carryover from my parents’ era, when they were forced to recite Wordsworth and Robbie Burns and Longfellow for no coherent pedagogical reason. When I was young, I was convinced my parents had to memorize poetry because nobody had discovered education yet.

But here I am, not even all that old, and urging you to shun an Introduction to Constitutional Law and even Economics for Those Who Will Fail at Economics for at least one professor—if not several—who will force you to commit swaths of The Canterbury Tales and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to memory.  Why? Not because you will enjoy learning or performing these old poems, nor because they will someday come in handy on your MCATs or LSATs. But because there is something strangely present about those strange rhyming couplets, marching two by two down your cerebral cortex, poems full of words and sentiments you neither understand nor use. Weirdly, they will start to remind you, as you hustle around campus for meetings and rehearsals and labs that seem terrifically important, that all of these pressures and deadlines and tests feel terribly urgent and real, but kind of aren’t. Not really. And as you race, and strive, and compete, and ask for extensions, and cadge better grades, and call home in tears because of something you won’t remember, it’s possible that the real magic of college will completely pass you by until you realize, many years later, that holy shit, you know “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” or Leaves of Grass, and all the wisdom of the ages was packed in there, it’s just that you missed it at the time for band practice, or swim team, or to get to the salad bar before all the hearts of palm were gone.

I am not that old, but I fear that I couldn’t memorize another poem for love or money or a guaranteed A anymore. I can barely memorize my Facebook password. But I do know that at more than one turn in my life, I have stumbled backward into a memory of a stanza or a phrase that suddenly made the moment briefly beautiful, and connected, and deep. And that the dogged memorization of hateful poems, which sucked mightily at the time, later became the template for sorting the serious from the silly, before we knew what silliness really was.

Kale for the soul. Even though you can’t think why. That is all ye know on earth. And all ye need to know.

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