Greene: Poetic Memory

May 1, 2019

Decades ago, my kindergarten class memorized Robert Frost's Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. I recall that we performed it several times, gap-toothed, cheerfully yelling the verses to general audience approval. The interesting thing is that the poem has stayed with me all these years, popping up at odd moments to warm my imagination.

In school I also memorized other bits of the English poetic canon, most of which have stayed with me as well.

In Rumpole of the Bailey, character Horace Rumpole is forever spouting Keats and Wordsworth to punctuate indignities and triumphs – and I think he was onto something.

It's a gift to have exalted poetic language with which to frame, color and deepen one's experience. It connects us to history and keeps us from feeling isolated – which is especially important in a technology-driven world, where it's easy to be numbed out by slogans and sales pitches.

I’m beginning to think of poetry as an antidote to monetized tweets and sound bites - maybe even a kind of armor. Poetry pokes us and reminds us we’re alive. There’s nothing to buy, and not much to post.

So I was heartened to hear that grades K through 3 at the Dover School all memorize poetry and songs. They'll need some protection against the deluge of information vying for their attention online.

Numerous studies point to the benefits of rote memorizing in promoting the brain's neural plasticity, but this is especially true as we age. The effects can last years after the memory work has been completed.

Memorizing helps to develop focus, to free up mental space for creativity and to stave off cognitive decline.

Exercising due diligence, I contacted a couple of fellow kindergarten alums to verify my Frost recollections. Actor Arthur Pettee is no slouch at memorizing, and he says we didn't learn the poem in kindergarten; we were too busy mastering the alphabet.

But writer and meditation teacher Colleen Chatterton is sure we did, since she still remembers it, but says it may have been later, perhaps in third grade.

Still, however creative my memory may be about standing in line, banging out the verses, the poem itself holds fast.