The Privacy of Memorization


I have an ill-kept secret: I have been memorizing a poem this week. It is difficult to hide; during a free period at school, I stare at a page of a book, without moving, for as long as I can afford, and if I think no one’s around, I mumble the syllables. Then, if I get too self-conscious, I go outside and find some quiet place where I can say the poem out loud. But then it’s time to come back, to teach the next class or do something else–so I think ahead, making an appointment in my mind. I come back, whenever I can, and one way or another, I learn the poem.

But why? For me, it’s a way of living in the poem, of coming to know it from the inside. It isn’t, as some others have described their own memorizing, that I bring the poem into my body and blood, though that might be true too. No, it’s more that I walk inside the poem, get to know its different turns, figure out how not to stumble, and learn, inside the poem, a way of living.

The memorization is private in that it accommodates itself to nothing. It is like practicing an instrument. In everyday life you have interruptions, switches of attention (less frequent here than in U.S. schools, I find, but still part of the school day), and general conventions regarding what people do in their unscheduled time. Here it is just you and the poem trading words in silence or out loud. It is maybe like the relationship between the boy and the stone in János Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szenvedély margójára.” For the time being, while you are learning the poem, there is no other one, anywhere on the beach; and then, when you have learned it, and you recite it (toss it), the whole ocean replies. But maybe it’s the poem that tosses you. It finds and claims you, and then hurls you outward. In any case, the hurling is not just a one-time event; you get to hurl and be hurled again and again.

People often think of memorization as something you do for an assignment. In Hungary it is associated with elementary school (and high school too): having to learn a poem, coming to school, writing it out for a test. Is it good to have so much memorization? Yes, if there’s also a chance to take time with the poems, both then and later. If it’s just an assignment, then maybe students will resent it, but if it’s treated as more, it will become more still. True, not all students will like the poem, but liking is not always the point. The concept of “liking” trivializes things and people. There’s something beyond liking.

But why should a teacher memorize a poem; why, in particular, should an English teacher memorize a poem in Hungarian, which isn’t even her subject? The question itself contains a misunderstanding. If teachers’ work is not with literature, art, mathematics, then what is it? People often think of teaching as pedagogy, methodology, strategies, but such things must come out of the subject matter. Besides, if a teacher cannot (or should not) take time with a poem, why on earth would the students? There is life in this; to toss aside such life, or to belittle it, is to opt for something dreary. Drear can easily become the norm; to claim something else, you must go forth unabashed.

The poem I learned is “Nem tudhatom” by Miklós Radnóti. It is the sixth poem that I have memorized in Hungarian. Two students recommended it to me (months apart).

I took the photo yesterday morning, just a minute before opening the door for class. It was the view from the Laboratory 1 window.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.



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