September 20: Recitation Day

Today is the birthday of Donald Hall, American poet and the 14th U.S. Poet Laureate. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1928, and when he was only sixteen, he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In his 50-year career as a writer, Hall has published poems, essays, letters, children’s books, and literary criticism (1).

Donald Hall.jpgIn 1985 Hall wrote a short essay for Newsweek‘s “My Turn” column entitled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture” where he challenged readers to return to reading and reciting aloud:

Good readers hear what they read even though they read in silence: speed reading is barbaric. When we read well, in silence, we imagine how the words would sound if they were said aloud. Hearing print words in the inward ear, we understand their tone. If we see the sentence “Mr. Armstrong shook his head,” the inner voice needs to understand whether Mr. Armstrong disapproved or was outraged — before the inner voice knows how to speak the words.

If when we read silently we do not hear a text, we slide past words passively, without making decisions, without knowing or caring about Mr. Armstrong’s mood. We might as well be watching haircuts or “Conan the Barbarian.” In the old Out-Loud Culture, print was always potential speech; even silent readers, too shy to read aloud, inwardly heard the sound of words. Everyone’s ability to read was enhanced by recitation. Then we read aggressively; then we demanded sense (2).

Although written in 1985, Hall’s words are as true today as ever.

Today’s Challenge: Out-Loud Renaissance
What is a passage of prose or a poem that you feel is worth reading out loud and is worth committing to memory?  What makes it so exemplary and so worth remembering? Challenge yourself this week to commit a favorite poem or passage to memory. See if it helps you pay more attention to the written word.  Sponsor a “Recitation Day” in your class or community, challenging people to share their poems or passages out loud.

Quotation of the Day: We must encourage our children to memorize and recite. As children speak poems and stories aloud, by the pitch and muscle of their voices they will discover drama, humor, passion, and intelligence in print. In order to become a nation of readers, we must again become a nation of reciters. — Donald Hall

 

1 – http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/264

2 – Hall, Donald. “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.” Newsweek 15 April 1985: 12.

 

August 23:  Invictus Day

On this day in 1849, poet, critic, and editor William Ernest Hendley was born. Suffering from tuberculosis since he was 12, Henley was frequently hospitalized.  In 1875 his leg was amputated due to complications from the disease.  That same year as he recovered from his surgery, he wrote his best known poem Invictus (Latin for “unconquerable”) (1).

The poem’s brilliance revolves around its expression of the indomitable human spirit.  Also, the poem’s generalized statements of human anguish –“bludgeonings of chance,” “fell clutch of circumstance” — make it applicable to all manner of human struggles.

One example of the poem’s influence comes from the life of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).  While imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years, Mandela frequently recited the poem to buoy the spirits of his fellow prisoners.  

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,   
 Black as the Pit from pole to pole,   
I thank whatever gods may be   
 For my unconquerable soul.   
  
In the fell clutch of circumstance
 I have not winced nor cried aloud.   
Under the bludgeonings of chance   
 My head is bloody, but unbowed.   
  
Beyond this place of wrath and tears   
 Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years   
 Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.   
  
It matters not how strait the gate,   
 How charged with punishments the scroll,   
I am the master of my fate:
 I am the captain of my soul.

A short poem like Invictus is perfect for memorization.  As Mandela demonstrated, it is the kind of poem that can lift your spirits or the spirits of your compatriots when courage is needed to face what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

In his essay “Why We Should Memorize,” Novelist and poet Brad Leithauer talks about a bygone era (from 1875 to 1950) when the memorization and recitation of poetry was a staple of the curriculums of both Britain and the United States:

The rationales for verse recitation were many and sometimes mutually contradictory: to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; to strengthen the brain through exercise; and so forth.

Leithaurer hopes for a revival of memorization, a process where students literally learn poems “by heart”:

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. [N.Y.U Professor Catherine] Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” (2)

Today’s Challenge:  I Am the Master of the Poem
What are the keys to effective memorization and recitation of poetry?  What process would you use to learn a poem by heart?  Begin the process of memorizing Invictus.  Read and reread the poem.  Read it aloud.  Write the poem down.  Break the poem down into smaller parts.  Then, memorize it line by line and stanza by stanza.  Decide what key words you want to emphasize and experiment with reciting it using different tones.  Finally, use the words of the poem to inspire your goal of memorizing the poem.  Don’t give up!

Quotation of the Day:  Sure I am this day we are masters of our fate, that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us. -Winston Churchill

 

1-http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-ernest-henley

2- Leithauer, Brad.  “Why We Should Memorize.”  The New Yorker.  25 Jan. 2013.