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Carving Phrases Into Memory

WE went to Gettysburg last weekend, and on the way there, I tried reciting the words to the Gettysburg Address. It was embarrassing - I only remembered as far as ``... and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal'' - the end of the first sentence! So when we arrived at the solemn battlefield, with its statues and monuments rising out of the rolling countryside, the first thing I did was rush to see Lincoln's own handwritten copy of the address at the visitor's center. The room that houses the document is so dark you can barely make out the words (purposely, so as to preserve them), but even in that dim light the phrases leap off the page. ``The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here,'' it says.

I winced a little, reading those words, because I hadn't remembered what Lincoln said there. I had learned the words in junior high school and had kept them in mind long only enough to recite them in front of the class and earn a passing grade.

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Maybe memorization is another of those things that's wasted on the young. I won't go so far as to say that students should stop doing it, but why should we stop when we grow up? My second encounter with the Gettysburg Address made me want to pull out every dusty old textbook I could find and start memorizing - Victorian sonnets, the preamble to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence.

Not that we should necessarily go back and relearn what we were assigned at age 12. We should memorize what we love, I think. We should read over and over (and preferably aloud) the words that we love, so that they become a part of us. We should do this to combat the drivel that fills our minds like so many weeds - the silly ad jingles, the words to songs bombarding us as we shop in the supermarket, the phone numbers of friends we no longer call. These choke out what we should be remembering.

As it turns out, I have been memorizing a lot these days. Not necessarily famous addresses, but the nursery rhymes, poems, and snippets of stories and songs I recite to my two-year-old daughter. I didn't consciously set out to remember every word of ``Goodnight, Moon'' or ``The Owl and the Pussycat,'' but nevertheless, there they are. We are taking a walk and I suddenly say: ``The owl and the pussycat went to sea/In a beautiful pea-green boat.'' They burst out of me without thinking.

Now I suppose it would be better for me if I were reading her John Donne, but the important thing is, this little exercise proves that memorization works. If you read something often enough, eventually those words set up housekeeping in your mind, and they come in handy when you least expect them to. I now recite poems to our daughter when we're stuck in a traffic jam or caught without power in a thunderstorm. When I launch into them, her little eyes dance, and I can see from her smile that she's remembering the pictures on the page that illustrate each rhyme, that by saying words in a particular order I am letting her tap into the powerful feelings that language can evoke.

Memorization liberates. Once we know the words, we carry their wisdom around with us; we are freed from the printed page. Being able to recite a few lines of poetry or prose, if only silently, lets us savor the rich thoughts of great writers and thinkers any time, any place. Ever since I taught poetry to ninth graders I've carried around in my head the words to Robert Frost's ``Nature's First Green is Gold,'' and they pop into my mind predictably whenever I see the freshening new leaves of a willow or oak.

This year, my first glimpse of Washington, D.C.'s cherry trees brought A.E. Houseman to mind: ``Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough.'' If we memorize enough lines to enough poems, songs, and stories, something will pop into our heads most of the time, and provide a personalized running commentary on the sights and sounds of the day.

It is fitting, I think, (and here I'm beginning to sound like Lincoln) that when you memorize something, you learn it ``by heart.'' Because the more you hear and learn a string of words, the more you love them.

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I bought a postcard at Gettysburg. It has a picture of the Lincoln memorial and the words of the address below it. I'm sticking it between the pages of ``Snow White,'' and the next time there's a lull, I'll begin: ``Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty....''

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