Monday, April 18, 2011

Memorizing Robert Hayden's "Frederick Douglass"

Some poems are a joy to memorize. That's what I was thinking as I worked to commit Robert Hayden's poem "Frederick Douglass" to memory.

I have been re-reading and sharing the poem with groups of students for years so maybe I already had segments in my head when I sat down to memorize it. "Segments" might be the key word.

Phrases like "diastole, systole / reflect action," "gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians," and of course "the lives grown out of his life" had already been inscribed in my mind. Bits and pieces of the poem were familiar, but it did take some time and energy and many, many re-readings in order for me to finally memorize the poem.

Hayden's "Frederick Douglass" is a tribute poem that at the same time tries to go beyond a regular tribute. Toward the end of the piece, Hayden announces that Douglass will be remembered not with the rhetoric of statues and "legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone." Instead, he envisions that the ex-slave will be remembered because of "the lives grown out of his life, the lives, / fleshing his dream."

The poem is a sonnet, and that was important for the purposes memorizing as I was able to first remember the first seven lines and then remember the last seven lines. Thinking of the poem in those two sets of seven rings familiar to those who study cognitive psychology and memory, since they often cite George Miller's 1956 paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information."

Miller's paper advances the notion that people can typically remember about 7 things at a time. He was hardly referring to 7 lines of verse, which may have more than 7 items in each of those lines.

Still, the "magic number seven" resonated in the mind of this memory-worker as I went about chunking segments of the poem.

Years ago, I found a recording of Hayden reading "Frederick Douglass." I love the sound of his voice as he reads. What I had not realized until I tried reading along with the recording was how quickly he reads.

Some days ago as I was still trying to learn the poem, the pace of Hayden's reading seemed especially quick to me. The words and meaning of the piece are powerful, so in my own readings of his poem, I try to keep the sound of Hayden's voice in my head while reading at a slower pace.

Memorizing Kelly Norman Ellis's "Raised by Women"

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