sábado, junho 13, 2015

Poetry memorization (NOT!): "The Memory Palace - Learn Anything and Everything (Starting With Shakespeare and Dickens)" by Lewis Smile

Published 2012.

I’m well aware of the fact the trend in education today is to get away from rote memory. The students are to learn by doing and by understanding concepts. Some of the teachers I know would not even use the word “memory”, not until I really pin them down, anyway.

Of course, trying to help a student learn by doing and through concepts is great. But we still know that in order to pass any subject or to pass most tests – to learn -, you’d better remember!

A long time ago I’d a similar discussion with a Biochemistry teacher. Her argument was that memory was unimportant in education. Then I sat at her beginning-of-term class at Faculdade de Ciências de Lisboa. I still remember her telling her students that on page so-and-so of the text was a list of the inorganic chemical formulas. She said, “You must all know these formulas by the end of the semester. If you don’t learn them, you can’t pass the subject.” Well, she used the words “know” and “learn” – never “remember” or “memorize” – but isn’t that what she really meant? She sure did! Because there’s no way to know or learn all of the inorganic formulas without memorizing or remembering them! No way at all! I know this from personal experience (I studied chemistry in college).

Doing and concepts are fine, but without memory, they don’t hold up too well. In fact, the doing-and-concepts idea itself is a method that’s supposed to help you remember information. The same is true of most subjects that one studies. If one has a good memory, one is a good student. One thinks with what one remembers, because memory is knowledge. What I remember, I know!

I’ve been using memory books for ages. I know quite a lot of poems by heart (in Portuguese, English and German), and I’m always on the look-out for the perfect book to learn memory techniques. This is still not that book. If you had tried to memorize Shakespeare by using this book, you’d have failed miserably.  And now you’re wondering, why should I care about memorizing a bunch of old fogey poetry? The best argument for poetry memorization I can give you is that it provides me with knowledge of a qualitatively and psychology different range, i.e., I can take the poem inside me, into my brain chemistry if not in my blood, and I know it at a deeper, bodily level than if I simply read it off a screen. Learning poetry by heart allows the heart to feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own cadence.
I still have every word of Shakespeare’s 23rd sonnet, my personal favourite:
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharg'd with burthen of mine own love's might.
O! let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.

This sonnet is a literal part of me, which perhaps accounts for his wonderful sway in my imagination. No other poem about “books” (is it about "books..."?) I’ve encountered in other poems since—not “There is No Frigate Like a Book (1286)” by Emily Dickinson, or “Notes on the Art of Poetry,” by Dylan Thomas, or “Ode to the Book,” by Pablo Neruda, or “The Land of Story-books,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, or “The Prelude (Book Fifth — Books),” by William Wordsworth, or “I Like Your Books,” by Charles Bukowski —can compete with Shakespeare, dwelling as he does in an aerie at the top of the world.  
Why didn’t a like Smile’s’ book? Because it’s crap? Why is it crap? You won’t be able to memorize Shakespeare. What do I care about “learning” by heart a list of William Shakespeare's 37 plays (in chronological order)?  What’s the intrinsic and added-value of knowing this? I cannot fathom it. How to Teach your Children Shakespeare” by Ken Ludwig is a much, much better book (it even has Shakespearean poetry…).

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