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“Whisper and Shout: Poems to Memorize” (and Perform)

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Why should we memorize anything when we have a smart phone?

Think of how many things we used to memorize as a matter course that we don’t bother with anymore. I still know my childhood phone number, but I barely known my own number now.

I went to a “Christian” school when I was little, which means that memorizing Bible verses and things like the Books of the Bible were part of my education. I can still remember and recite several Psalms, the entire Christmas story from Luke 2, and all the Books of the Bible, which impresses people everywhere. When I shifted to my local public school in fourth grade, I was required to memorize an abridged version of Patrick Henry’s speech (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States (Thank you Mr. Casteen).

I can still recite much of what I learned, including getting through all the minor prophets in the Old Testament, in order.

I never regret the time I spent memorizing that stuff: I wish I had been forced to memorize more.

Since we all carry smart phones with us everywhere now, and have that information at our fingertips, memorization just doe not get the love it once did in education, but I think it still should.

Sure, we can look things up, but having the words embedded in your mind means that they are there with you when you need them.

You don’t know what you don’t know. If you know what I mean.

And I maintain that the American educational system does not give nearly enough attention to oral language as it should, especially considering how popular making and publishing video is these days. Memorizing and reciting poetry and prose pieces is an excellent “low fuss” way to add performance to language arts education that all kids can do. It’s also easy to individualize, differentiate, and allow for student interest without overwhelming the teacher. It’s easy to come up with an assortment of poems or books from which students can choose their own poems, and having them do so is the best thing because no one wants to hear the same poem recited 20 times by 20 different kids. No one.

If you’re an adult, it’s not too late for you. Memorizing poetry is a good mental activity (probably prevents senility), and again, once you have it, you have it.

Certain Bible verses still come back to me when I am struggling even though I’m not that religious. I even hear my mom’s voice quoting her favorite verse, which is pretty cool because she is not longer with us.

I’m not as good with poetry as I am with the Bible (and Patrick Henry and the Preamble) because I didn’t have to consciously memorize much, if any, but certain lines do come to me when I need them: “If you can keep your head when everyone about you/is losing theirs and blaming it on you” (Kipling). That one comes to mind often.

Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or someone who loves poetry, Whisper and Shout: Poems to Memorize is an excellent collection of poems that you know or (should) want to know and also are good lengths for learning.

For more from The Lois Level on poetry:

Reading Poetry: why and how

Category: A Poem With Your Coffee

Samples from Whisper and Shout

Puddle Jumper

Free Read

Quick Read

“Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward

(Among them Nora and Henry III)”

by Gwendolyn Brooks

(Whisper and Shout, p. 5)

say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Macbeth, Act V scene v

By William Shakespeare

(Whisper and Shout, p. 7)

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools T

he way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

I always thought that this soliloquy from Macbeth is the postscript for this speech from As You Like It. Probably everyone thinks that; it’s hard to think of anything original when it comes to Shakespeare, and I’m certainly no Shakespeare scholar. I did check the dates to see what likely came first, and if you believe the Royal Shakespeare Company (as any sensible person would), As You Like It was written first.

Try reading Jacques’ speech first and then immediately follow it with the speech above.

As You Like It, Act II scene vii

By William Shakespeare

JAQUES: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Note: Jaques speech does not appear in Whisper and Shout; I found this at the Monologue Archive.

 

Making something out of nothing

“Jabberwocky” first appeared in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a lot of fun because it the reader has to rely on the structure of the poem to make sense of it, and the reader is left to imagine what the Jabberwock really is.

Quick Read

Free Read

“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

(Whisper and Shout, pp. 28-29)

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

      And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

      Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Where the poetry comes from

“Counting Out Rhyme” is another poem that at first glance, doesn’t mean much, but that gives us, as the reader, room to envision it our own way.

Like life, however, things are often as not as simple and straightforward as they seem.

Read on after the poem to discover why this seemingly simple, charming poem may also be about something more primal.

“Counting Out Rhyme”

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

(Whisper and Shout, p.69)

Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
    Twig of willow.

Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
    Bark of popple.

Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
    Wood of hornbeam.

Silver bark of beech, and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
    Twig of willow.

“Counting Out Rhyme” has a very sweet, innocent sound to it. If you want, leave it at that, but if you have a devious streak in you, and some time to kill, try mixing it in with this incantation from the witches’ spell in Act I of Macbeth, and see how easily it integrates. Just recite, “Double double” couplet after every verse.

The rhythm and meter of poetry has been connected to the very first sound we hear as humans: the (mother’s) heartbeat.

So maybe it’s natural for use to go back to that in times of trouble.


While I did cook this up in my own little brain, I’m definitely not the only one, which a quick check of Google will show you. Again, it’s difficult to say anything original about Shakespeare, and probably not too easy when it comes to Millay either.

The witches’ speech is not from Whisper and Shout, nor is the very ADULTS ONLY clip from the Roman Polanski production below. Only watch if your stomach is strong.

Macbeth, Act 1 scene iii by William Shakespeare

First Witch

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

ALL

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Enter HECATE to the other three Witches

HECATE

O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ & c

HECATE retires

Second Witch

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

not the only one to notice the similarity, which you will quickly see if you google.

First Witch

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

ALL

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Enter HECATE to the other three Witches

HECATE

O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ & c

HECATE retires

Second Witch

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Find this text HERE.

Quick Read

Free Read

This film is what happens when you are traumatized from the murder of your wife (Sharon Tate) by Charles Manson and got funding from Playboy Enterprises. Yup. It happened. And here you thought you were reading a nice little post about poetry.

Click HERE for the full story.

And again, do not watch this clip from Roman Polanski’s Macbeth while the kids are around, especially if they are prone to bad dreams.

Cover Photo Credit


“‘Jabberwocky’-”Theatre Royal Magazine’”. Jonbromwich / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The Lois Level makes every reasonable effort to ensure all photos used have been legally released by the creator and participants, especially in cases where children appear.

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