Literate practices: Rediscovering the value of recitation

Men on Succor Street -Photo: (c) Kate Koshnick Photography (

Our Changing Literacy Expectations:

We (as teachers and as a broader culture) critically underestimate the degree to which our expectations of literate practice change. Even more so, we fail to appreciate the extent to which what we expect of a literate person in today’s society is dramatically more ambitious than our recent past and that the these demands and expectations have changed over a very short period of time. No book makes this more apparent, nor outlines in greater detail the nature of these changing expectations than Miles Myers’ (1996) book, Changing Our Minds: Negotiating English and Literacy. In it, he gives a historical account, naming, categorizing and describing precisely how our expectations have shifted. Here is his timeline and the general terminology/classifications that he uses to organize his presentation:

1600 Oracy

1776 Signature

1864 Recitation

1916 Decoding

Translation 1983

After I first read Myer’s book, I came to appreciate the evolving generational differences in the forms of literacy education. They became apparent, for example, in my own family as I grew to recognize that my grandfather was taught a form of literacy that valued different kinds of “reading” than my own. My late grandfather, Robert Koshnick, was educated in a rural Minnesota one-room schoolhouse during the early 1900’s. Throughout his childhood, he was taught printing through tracing and replication (a significant overlap between his education and my own grade school work), but he was also taught to memorize and recite long passages of both prose and poetry. This emphasis on memorization (recitation on Myer’s chronology) was no longer valued by the time I was in grade school. Whenever he would quote Tynneson, Poe, Robert Service, Yeats, etc. I envied him because I did not share his ability to recite tens of poems by heart. 

1925 My grandfather (in back) and a neighbor friend during the first day of school

As Myers’ book argues, translation captures aspects of our current literate practice. The ability to translate, i.e. to summarize, re-symbolize, and transfer information from specific sources for use across shifting social, political, and professional contexts takes a great deal of training and practice to do well. Given the power and relatively availability of increasingly “hand-held” search engine devices, via Google, etc. we can find vast stores of information instantaneously -the primary skill that must be emphasized, given these trends, is to interpret and repurpose that information for shifting purposes and audiences. Where once we stressed honoring established works of poetry and literature as aesthetic and moral achievements -when we include such works now, we value instead the ability to: a) decode, and therefore learn from them; b) to summarize, and therefore symbolize for renewed intentions and purposes. These abilities do not require memorization, or recitation, largely outdated forms of literate practice.

My teaching practices in reading and writing have been utterly influenced by my understanding and appreciation of a translation literacy for modern, functional, goals and outcomes. And yet, inspired by the legacy of my grandfather’s (recitation) childhood literacy to memorize and recite poems, I have, and continue to, dedicate myself to such learning. I have done so on my own terms as an adult and often with the sneaking suspicion that -although outdated- my own childhood was intellectually malnourished by the loss of such practice. Sure, admiration of my grandfather has influenced my perspective, but for years I could sense, but could not adequately explain why the ability to recite poetry in particular felt so important and powerful.

When I was introduced to the concept and term “gignomai” however, I was suddenly able to both establish and explain just what happens when we hone the ability to memorize and recite specific passages. Ever since, when teaching those courses in writing that are explicitly grounded in the humanities, I have included the following assignment in my courses, with the following explanation of its value.

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This is what I expect of this assignment. You are to enter into the work – populate a poem with your own identity – bring together two realms – you and a poem – until they become each something a little more familiar.

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The Art of Poetic Memorization

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A good poem is an introduction to the world. In medieval times, a poet was called ‘a maker’. According to this understanding, a poet makes the world. And, in a way, every story, every poem is a form of making and re-making the world. Such stories, however small, are not fanciful, complete fictions – rather, they inform us about the world. They tell us how we live, often in surprising and sobering ways.

Consider for a moment the Greek word: Gignomai –born of ‘gnosis’ or “knowing” it is commonly known as the form of knowing that is ‘to become’ -a from of knowledge whereby you become that knowledge. Gignomai, or knowing, in this sense, is a happening, a becoming.

It is to take within, and a transformation occurs. Memorizing poetry – the act allows a poem to enter fully into your self both consciously and unconsciously. It transforms your views in particular instances because you can call on the relationships inherent in a poem, to evoke a feel, or felt sense, of knowing particular words, or situations more immediately and fully.

And so poetry is a happening, a making in a very sincere sense.

Poems also entertain. When you memorize a poem, like learning to play a groovy song on the guitar, you may find yourself reciting it (to the amazement of others) around a campfire, or to yourself when you are stuck in traffic waiting patiently. Many people who memorize poetry often say it can be comforting at times, to have something familiar to recite much like a secular form of praying. The act offers an immediate connection with some part of the cosmos.

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An Example: How Knowing a Poem
Can Make the World a Bit More Familiar

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What follows below is the assignment and some suggestions on memorizing. But first read this entry from Karen McCosker’s book A Poem a Day.

“In the early 1970’s I was living in Athens. After a year, I was hoping that my father would find the courage to make the trip to see me. But despite the fact that he hated flying, loathed being away from his small, self-owned business and hometown where he knew everyone and everyone recognized him, my father did accompany my mother on this visit. While making the arduous ascent towards the Acropolis, I sensed a trepidation in his steps. He had a bad heart; it was suffocatingly hot and windless; the landscape was utterly foreign to him. He had become something he had rarely been: a stranger. I feared he might lose the psychological surefootedness that being on his own terrain gave him, want to turn back, go home. Pausing, he began to recite a poem, one by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

…Euclid alone

Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they

Who, though once only and then but far away,

Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Recalling what he knew oriented my father. The poem gave him breathing space in the crowd, and time to recover from the anxiety of feeling off balance. Hearing the words he had memorized helped him make his way because they suggested an an association between the strange place and the familiar poem, gathering up the distance between Athens and his upstate New York home.

Though my father often recited (no Thanksgiving or Christmas went unmarked by verse), I hadn’t realized until that morning in Athens how a single poem, even a few lines, learned by heart can transform the person who needs to hear those words at a particular time: how they can make what otherwise might have been abandoned possible.”

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The Assignment 

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During the course of this term, you are expected to memorize 2 poems of at least 15 lines. You may also choose to memorize specific lines from a play of the same minimum length.

On the day of the quiz, you will clear your desks and write out the poem on a piece of paper. You will have roughly 8 minutes to write the poem out and hand it in to me. You must demonstrate a near perfect transcription for full credit.

Each quiz is worth 5% of your grade. This is an all or nothing assignment. Minimal word variations in several lines is acceptable such as articles omitted or substituted: ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘an’ and a couple (meaning 2 or 3) word variations will be allowed. Form, word, spelling and meaning must remain wholly intact in at least 14 our of your 15 lines for credit. This includes knowing the line breaks throughout your poem.

You must choose and hand in a typed copy of the poem (or lines of play) to me roughly 3 weeks before quiz day. Unless you are very talented, DO NOT try to memorize 15 lines in one night! This kind of exercise will take at least 4 concentrated sessions to learn fully.

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Some Suggestions on Memorization
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*begin with 2 lines and add 2 additional lines as you become moderately comfortable with each new addition

*recognize the feel and feeling that the poem evokes; tapping into the sense or feel of the poem will help you recall details you may otherwise forget

*try to imagine the poem in a specific setting

*visually imagine the words on the page, then compare your mind’s image with the printed words; repeat as necessary

*pay attention to rhythm, rhyme, the overall music of the poem

*read the poem aloud

*use a pneumonic device  -the 1st letter of each line to form an acronym -then create a memorable line from the acronym; often the first letter will clue you into the words you want to remember


In your narrowing dark hours

That more things move

Than blood in the heart.

~Louise Bogan~

O. I. T. T.

oil is terribly thick’

*be conscious of specific words, or line breaks that you miss on a repeated basis

*look up any words if you are not familiar with them

*choose a poem you appreciate and enjoy

*recall as many lines as you can before you go to sleep; often memorization is a good tool for overcoming insomnia

*begin memorizing early and don’t worry, with a little practice anyone can memorize far more lines than needed for this assignment; just think of all of the actors that memorize the whole of Hamlet’s character

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A Few Poems I Have Memorized:

The Way We Live
by Kathleen Jamie

Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises
to the gods of movement and absolute
non-friction, flight, and the scary side:
death by avalanche, birth by failed contraception.

Of chicken tandoori and reggae, loud, from tenements,
commitment, driving fast and unswerving
friendship. Of tee-shirts on pulleys, giros and Bombay,
barmen, dreaming waitresses with many fake-gold
bangles. Of airports, impulse, and waking to uncertainty,
to strip-lights, motorways, or that pantheon —
the mountains. To overdrafts and grafting

and the fit slow pulse of wipers and you’re
creeping over roadways, while the God of moorland
walks abroad with his entourage of freezing fog,
his bodyguard of snow.

Of endless gloaming in the North, of Asiatic swelter,
to launderettes, anecdotes, passions and exhaustion,
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government. To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.

To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems to be:
let me bash out praises — pass the tambourine.

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by Phyllis Webb

The degree of nothingness
is important:
to sit emptily
in the sun
receiving fire
that is the way
to mend
an extraordinary world,
sitting perfectly
and only
remotely human.

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