I can safely say that I know less about the Rolling Stones than anyone else of my baby-booming generation. The sum total of my knowledge lies in these three statements: 1) There are four guys in the band; 2) Mick Jagger is their lead singer; 3) Their biggest hit of the ‘60’s was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. And frankly, I’m not that sure about number one.
When my son encountered “satisfaction” as a third grade spelling word, his unforgettable teacher introduced the class to the Stones’ famous anthem. What she did not do, however, was introduce them to the true path to satisfaction: memorizing poetry.
As children we all started learning rhymes subconsciously. Usually it was the a-b-c song, or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. Eventually we learned the jump rope ditties required to be a part of the playground scene. Beyond the Pledge of Allegiance, most students balk at the notion of memorizing anything. Ask your kids to commit a poem to memory, and prepare to hear a loud chorus of groans and moans.
High school students who know every lyric of the most obscure and absurd songs ever written still claim that being required to memorize poetry is brutal, punishing, and offensive in ways that defy description. This is likely because it requires such exhausting tasks as reading and concentration. They don’t know what they are missing. Words are powerful, and words that rhyme are magical. Poetry connects us in our marrow. You never know whose cells share your poetic DNA until some serendipitous event occurs.
For example, take the night my husband and I were in a restaurant with our good friends Dave and Betty. When my husband used the phrase, “There are strange things done…” Dave and I simultaneously, and without further prompting launched into a recitation of “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, given that my hubby had unwittingly offered up its opening line. Dave and I amused ourselves, and amazed ourselves at how automatically it spewed forth. Our respective spouses’ jaws dropped. They could not have regarded us with more disbelief if we had picked up straw hats and canes, and done an old-fashioned buck-and-wing across the dining room floor in striped blazers and straw hats. I couldn’t recall as many of its verses as Dave could, so I eventually looked up the old poem and set about memorizing it all over again. If it ever comes up in the future, I want to be ready. The competitor in me wants to be able to match him, line for line. And I found once again, that for pure satisfaction, not much can beat memorizing poetry.
I originally learned that work of Robert W. Service in the tenth grade English class of a wonderfully earnest and enthusiastic teacher; she inspired students to learn. The poem came back readily, and I took pleasure in re-learning it. That competitive side of me, (which certain small-minded people sometimes describe as cutthroat) can only hope that at some future trivia competition they ask for the name of the derelict boat in this poem. (Look it up.)
I confess that these days my personal preference is to read the work of our former poet-laureate Billy Collins. He can make me laugh till I hurt my stomach muscles (who knew I had any?), and he can stop my heart with a simple poignant line. Oh, to write like Billy Collins!
Now the famed former First Daughter of Camelot, Caroline Kennedy has published a book titled “Poems to Learn by Heart”. It’s filled with a hundred poems for children (and adults) to take in and enjoy. Huzzah!
So it’s not only baby-boomers who enjoy this secret pleasure. Five or six years ago my first and oldest friend, then aged 101 years, mentioned in a letter that she always recited “The Day is Done” by Longfellow at bedtime. She did so because her late husband had done so before going to sleep each night. This simple nightly ritual clearly made her feel closer to him, and somehow eased the pain of losing him. Of course, that compelled me to seek out “The Day is Done” so that I, too, could recite it to myself at bedtime, spiritually connecting me to my dear friend. She left this world a few years ago at age 102, but I recite it still, and keep her in my heart.
Poor Mick. He was just memorizing the wrong stuff.