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Letter of Recommendation: Poetry Memorization for Brain Preservation

by Susan Hellauer

Roger Angell Photo: New Yorker

Roger Angell
Photo: New Yorker

The ads feature attractive young adults, promise a nimble, ageless mind, and hint at protection from “dementia” or “decline” (read: Alzheimer’s – perhaps the most dreaded diagnosis of one’s ‘golden years’). It’s tempting: sign on for a modest monthly fee, play some amusing games on your phone or tablet, build the faculties to fend off con artists,  and beat your kids at checkers for as long as you can move the pieces. But more likely (as several recent studies assert), programs like Lumosity will do more to deplete your savings than to preserve your mind. The leading provider of brain game apps has just agreed to a $2 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over unfounded claims. So much for the app-age fast track to brain salvation.
But wait. Stop the car. Tell your children it’s not time to put you in a home just yet. A certain 95-year-old, 50-year New Yorker staffer, may have a better – in dollars and common sense – way to keep the old grey wolf of “Where are my KEYS!?” at bay.
Last month on WNYC, Leonard Lopate interviewed Roger Angell, Baseball Hall of Fame sportswriter and New Yorker Senior Fiction Editor. Angell had just published “This Old Man: All in Pieces,” a collection of essays, centered on the theme of aging. In response to a question about how Angell keeps his mind fresh enough to retrieve the right word, Angell said:

What I’ve done lately, in the last seven or eight years, is to start memorizing poetry. And this stays with you; and it’s not because I want to have something to say with me, but it keeps my brain alive. I’m pretty steadily learning a new poem every third or fourth week. I don’t perform them, but I say them to myself when I’m walking my dog, or when I’m falling asleep.

It’s been a couple of generations since teachers, either in grammar school or college, have, as a matter of course, required their students to memorize poetry or speeches.   Rote learning has taken a beating as an un-creative waste of time. But  in the last few years, poetry memorization has been, by inches and Angells, regaining its reputation.
Before Angell’s spot on WNYC, poet and novelist Brad Leithauser, made the case for poetry memorization in a 2013 New Yorker essay, “Why We Should Memorize.” As a young boy, Leithauser’s mother, an aspiring writer, offered him a penny a line to memorize poetry. His first attempt, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle” – “He clasps the crag with crooked hands” – earned him a whopping six cents, which, even with inflation, isn’t enough to buy a slice of pizza. But Leithauser still knows, and treasures, every word of the poem. And despite our now being just a few clicks away from virtually any poem, Leithauser, like Angell, advocates memorization. From his essay: “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.”
“How lovely!” you say. “But poetry seems a bit too fluffy for preserving this noggin.”
To you, the practical, unmovable, poet-dismisser, sure, you could go down the lifestyle route – exercise, eat vegetables, fruits, fish, chocolate, coconut oil, drink coffee, tea, red wine, supplements from A to Z and back, make friends, sleep, have sex, work, travel, volunteer, listen to or make music, dance, learn a new language, never sit down, practice neurobics – or just hope you’ve got good DNA, but me, I’ll be treating my brain like the 95-year-old who’s still getting W-2s from a pre-eminent American magazine.
Six cents to anyone who gets this one:

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

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