Larry Efird: Memorizing vs. knowing

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 19, 2023

Apart from  having a deep appreciation for the prologue to the  Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” I  have an even  deeper desire to adopt the philosophy of life he presents in those opening verses. Although the entire  poem totals almost three thousand lines, the succinct, eleven-verse introduction embodies a tone of perseverance  as he struggles to accept and understand the untimely death of a close friend.  But to be honest, his queries apply to anyone who has ever pondered  the purpose of  any traumatic event.

After visiting with a former college classmate from Canada  who has been memorizing poetry regularly for quite some time, I was inspired to begin doing the same myself.  Having taught high school English for many years, one of my goals in requiring poetry memorization was that my students would realize  that memorizing and learning are not always the same thing. I’m not sure when I figured that out for myself, but I don’t think it was until after college, unfortunately.

When I began my daily memorization routine using just a simple poem for starters, I wondered if I could tackle more challenging  pieces so I started learning  new ones whenever I rode my bike each day. The original  goal was to attempt to memorize  a new poem every month. After successfully reciting one entire  poem from memory, I could  continue to  recite it each day going forward, thereby  learning what it had to say to my heart and not just my head. I found that the words would eventually become as effortless as comfortably  pedaling along a tree lined path in the park dappled by soft sunlight.

I initially thought about wearing a sign around my neck that announced, “Rider memorizing poetry” so I wouldn’t feel conspicuous,  but it hasn’t been necessary since most of the folks I pass are “talking to themselves” too, thanks to  earbuds and cell phones.  I’ve only had one awkward situation  so far, and that was a close encounter with a curious pit bull who got loose as he was walking with his owner and  wanted to see what I was up to. Once he heard just a few phrases  from “Holy Sonnet XIV” by John Donne,  he backed off. I guess when  he heard the words “batter, knock, overthrow, break, blow, burn, and imprison,” he decided he didn’t want to mess with me. Donne’s Holy Sonnets can be scary if taken out of context!

Since this  journey  began, I’ve learned poems by other British poets such as William Blake, Thomas Hardy, Chaucer, and of course, Shakespeare.   Most of them are  manageable works in  sonnet form, but I also decided to branch out with  a lengthy biblical selection from  Psalm 103 which  totals 23 verses.

If I could only have one scripture passage for mental and theological health, that would be it. And if I could only remember one poem for the same reason, Tennyson’s introduction to “In Memoriam A.H.H.” would be my first choice. Between those  two pieces, there’s enough wisdom to help me stay on course. Interestingly enough, both selections urge the reader to remember that “even though  humans are  dust, God always chooses to be just.” (My paraphrase.)

The following reminder from Tennyson may be simple, but it is practical.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:

Thou madest man, he knows not why,

He thinks he was not made to die;

And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Ironically,  as soon as  I think I’ve successfully  learned how to accept the inevitability of  injustice in the world, something else happens, such as a mass shooting on a school campus or at a shopping mall. Then I wonder if listening to the voices of dead poets is actually any help at all.

But then I remember another verse from  Tennyson when he appears to stop questioning  his friend’s death.  Though the grief lingers he is learning how to cope.

Forgive my grief for one removed,

   Thy creature, whom I found so fair.

   I trust he lives in thee, and there

I find him worthier to be loved.

In reality, Tennyson merely echoes the words of the psalmist David,  the most famous poet  of all time: “He remembers our frame, he knows that we are dust.” And though  I may have memorized those comforting words, I hope I have also learned them as well.

Larry Efird retired from teaching in Kannapolis City Schools.