The act of memorizing something — anything: a poem, a literary passage, a speech, a prayer, a philosophical principle — is one of the most meaningful things we can do. In this episode, I explain why and how to do so.
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Welcome to Food for Thought Podcast, THE place to explore, celebrate, and manifest a life motivated and defined by unconditional compassion and optimal wellness. Today’s episode is Learning by Heart: The Act of Memorization
Before we begin, my name is Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. You can find me at joyfulvegan.com and on social media, and you can find my books wherever books are sold, and you can join me in my online cooking classes. This podcast is possible because of the support of listeners like you, and you can join other supporters by going to patreon.com/colleenpatrickgoudreau to become a supporter today at your chosen level. Thank you so much in advance for supporting, for subscribing, and for listening.
A lot of you who listened to my episode 50 Ways to Create a Meaningful Life wanted to hear more about some of the 50 items on the list — and I’ve gotten a lot of requests to hear more about one in particular, and that is the suggestion to MEMORIZE something — anything: a poem, a literary passage, a speech, a prayer, a philosophical treatise…whatever is meaningful to you.
It’s one of the most meaningful things I do, and let me explain why.
On this podcast, you hear me talk a lot about words, language, literature, and writing — all of which I love, and I know many of you do, too. But remember: you’re listening to a podcast. I’m SPEAKING, and you’re LISTENING to me speak, and in fact, that is one of our oldest forms of communication, of storytelling, of transmission of information, of poetry. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the history of English and the etymology of many words in English, but writing is an incredibly new technology (and it is just that — a technology, an invention) relative to the acquisition of speech. Speech is natural; writing is taught and requires tools. The goos and gaas of babies is the natural homo sapien impulse to move that breath, the larynx, the tongue, and the lips — all of which enable us to speak, one of the distinguishing features of humans. While we need to be taught how to read and how to write, under normal circumstances, no baby needs to be taught how to speak. Birds gotta fly; fish gotta swim, humans gotta talk.
Speech is social; we learn to speak looking at each other’s mouths and faces; we learn speech patterns, and we learn how to listen. Today, we have so many distractions pulling our attention away, which has negatively impacted our ability to really listen, understand, and remember. We multitask, we speak without thinking, we hear without comprehending, and we let words wash over us without letting them penetrate our memory — and our hearts. And I’m not talking about facts here; I’m talking about stories, poems, narratives — either true or fictitious — in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct.
Historically, we humans relied on narratives being passed down orally for thousands of years. Oral tradition is a form of human communication whereby we receive, transmit, and preserve wisdom, knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material from one generation to another. This has been done for thousands of years through song, ballads, chants, or folktales. So, when I’m talking about memorizing something, this is what I’m talking about, and you already do it. You can recite and recall nursery rhymes, jokes, and of course the lyrics of songs, and you can easily memorize them because of what they all have in common: mnemonic devices that help us remember — rhythms, rhymes, repetition, alliteration, etc. But aside from songs we kinda naturally memorize because we want to sing along…we don’t really take the time to memorize and recite poems, speeches, or literary passages anymore.
There was a time when recitation held an official slot in the school curriculum (roughly 1875 to 1950) in the U.S. and UK. This was often done to foster a lifelong love of literature; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to strengthen the brain through exercise — not to mention (especially in the UK) to help purge the idioms and accents of “lower-class speech.” While many of us naturally remember nursery rhymes and songs from our childhood that are imprinted on us, most of us have grown up in a time when memorization and recitation of texts in school weren’t required of us, unless you were in the choir or theatre.
I still remember much of Act 2, scene 2 (the balcony scene) from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that I learned in high school, and in graduate school, my Chaucer professor required each student to memorize and recite to her the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. It was nerve-racking, because we had to learn it in Middle English, but it was a challenge I really loved, and I still remember (most) of it. I need a little prompting to really run with it. But I’m really grateful for the challenge, and once something is in your bones, it’s just hard to shake. You already know this from songs you have memorized. But since then — since grad school, I’ve taken it upon myself to memorize passages and poems I love. And David does the same. Last year or so, I set out to memorize the Tao Te Ching, and I’m about halfway through, and I’ve memorized — and continue to memorize favorite poems and philosophical passages.
And to be clear, memorizing has been a significant part of my work. If you’ve ever seen me speak, you know I tend not to use notes (or it’s rare when I do); rather, I memorize the talk I’m giving, which adds a level of self-imposed stress that many people would avoid, but I just prefer it.
*Memorizing helps me grapple with the text I’ve written and improve it
*Memorizing forces me to make sure my points are as clear and succinct as possible
*Memorizing enables me to create a story, find a rhythm, and take my audience on a journey
And I think it just makes a better, more enjoyable, more memorable (ha) experience for the audience.
And — in addition — as most experts will tell you are the benefits of memorizing texts (whether it’s your own or someone else’s):
*Memorizing helps us focus. I mean you really can’t think of ANYTHING ELSE when you’re working memorizing something.
*It helps stave off memory decline and keeps your brain fit. In ages before paper, great orators mastered complex mnemonics to memorize great speeches verbatim. Now we just write them down, the paper substituting for our built-in memories.
*Memorizing helps the brain remember. That sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying that by virtue of memorizing something, your brain becomes more receptive at remembering. Memorizing exercises your brain, giving it strength to retain more information.
*Memorizing teaches you techniques like alliteration, cadence, tone, timber, inflection, emphasis, rhythm, and rhyme — all the beauty of speech.
*A working memory is better for creativity and literacy — like, it’s kind of awesome when you can recall a quote from a poet or philosopher to help make your point.
And that’s been one of the most meaningful aspects of memorizing for me — aside from the sense of accomplishment you feel — I’ve found that memorizing texts just enables me to understand the words so much more. They become my own, I internalize them, I embody them because I have to make meaning of them in order to imprint them in my memory. When you memorize a poem (or a passage of a speech or text you love), you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper level than if you simply read it off a page or a screen. I mean, after all, we call it “learning by heart.” If that doesn’t make the connection, I don’t know what else I can say.
It’s also fun to choose the works you want to recall again and again. It goes without saying that you would most likely choose works you appreciate or gain pleasure or wisdom from, so discovering or searching for those works is part of the joy — as is being able to recall them on a whim!
And that the other side of the coin here; it’s not just the act of memorizing that I find valuable and meaningful, it’s the act of recalling something I’ve memorized — for pleasure or to illustrate a point or to strengthen an argument or simply to accessorize / beautify / adorn an idea. I could say I love being with animals, or I could say, “I think I could turn and live with the animals; they are so placid and self-contain’d,” quoting Walt Whitman.
And more than that — I use recalled passages to console myself and others. Recalling these texts adds resonance and history poignancy and beauty to whatever I’m trying to convey. I could say, “Do what you need to and the rest isn’t yours,” and that’s true (and kinda lovely), but I also love being able to recall a quote from someone 2,000 years ago and say, “as the Tao says, ‘Do your work and step back — the only path to serenity.” Recalling the wisdom of an ancient work validates my thoughts and also elevates them.
And frankly, it’s just a healthy, energizing, exciting way to spend my brain power: turning off and tuning out external noise — even if it’s music or an interesting interview or podcast or conversation — it’s just nice to spend my brain power on…well, my own brain power and not listening to something outside of me. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a time and a place for everything. I listen to music and podcasts and what have you, but sometimes it’s nice to turn all that off and just go inside. To be disconnected from technology and my phone or my laptop. It’s sooo refreshing to be standing in line or going for a walk or blow-drying my hair or doing the dishes or showering or falling asleep and not only quieting my mind (because of course that’s lovely and necessary, too) but actually using that time to recall lines from poetry or words from philosophers that move me. No phone, no technology, no computer. Just me and my brain. It’s really funny, because I’m not typically someone who has trouble sleeping, but when my head hits the pillow at night, one of the things I love is reciting some of the things I have memorized (or am working on memorizing), and I fall asleep in no time.
So, how does one go about this? Well, I can share what works for me and see if it resonates with you. I’m sure you can find many strategies online, but I’ll just share with you works for me, which turns out is pretty well validated by people who are expert in this field.
HOW TO MEMORIZE
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
You’ve got rhyme, stress, breaks, emphasis, repetition, alliteration. So, use techniques such as these to help you memorize.
There are just so many benefits to and gifts from memorizing text — for adults and children alike. There’s a documentary by Ken Burns called The Address. The film tells the story of a tiny school in Putney Vermont, the Greenwood School, where each year the students are encouraged to practice, memorize, and recite the Gettysburg Address. I’d been wanting to memorize the Gettysburg Address, and that film inspired me to do so. It’s a lovely little documentary, and perhaps it will inspire you to memorize a passage you love.
It’s a gift to yourself, and it can even be a gift for a loved one. Memorizing and reciting a poem (or WRITING and memorizing a poem) to a loved one is an incredibly loving and also potentially romantic gift to give.
For the animals, this is CPG. Thanks for listening.