How’s your memory? No, I don’t mean the memory on your laptop or how much room you’ve got left on your iPod. I’m talking about your own memory, the one that stores all the stuff in your head. More and more, as we rely on our gadgets to remember birthdays and phone numbers, it seems we’re in danger of losing the mental muscles that used to perform those tasks. Luckily, a new literary contest celebrates those skills?and might just provide some students with a talent that will be very valuable in the future.
Last week, Scott Griffin (founder of The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry) announced Poetry in Voice/Les voix de la poésie, a ?national bilingual poetry recitation contest combining the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word, and theatre, with the study of great literature in the high school classroom.? Twelve Ontario schools will take part in the contest’s pilot phase, and the program is expected to be nationwide by 2013.
In an age where billions of pieces of data are available at the click of a search button, the notion of memorizing long passages might seem antiquated. Sure, it had value in Homer’s day, when USB keys didn’t exist and a travelling bard could support himself by reciting the thousands of lines of epic poetry he’d committed to memory.
But It’s not so much the memorization That’s important. It’s what the memorization is connected to: the ability for sustained, focused thought. It’s a skill That’s becoming rarer by the day, and its demise will have profound consequences on us all.
Nicholas Carr discussed the issue with frightening clarity in his essay ?Is Google Making Us Stupid?,? which appeared a couple of years ago in The Atlantic. In it, Carr wrote about how his ?concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages? of prose. ?I get fidgety,? he wrote, ?lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.? The shift is worrisome because Carr, like many others who grew up without the Internet or other digital distractions, was losing his ability for the ?deep reading that used to come naturally.?
It’s no secret that memory and sustained focus are connected. W.R. Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, notes in his blog that ?memory formation is enhanced by sustained attentiveness and focus.? Meditation, another form of sustained mental focus, is also closely tied to memory, and scientific studies have shown that it actually alters the physical structure of your brain.
So what does all this have to do with students memorizing poetry? Well, think about all the highly trained people we rely on every day. The doctors and pilots and engineers who need focus and mental discipline to master their jobs?and to stay good at them. If our society increasingly prizes fractured snippets of information, and the weak memory and shallow focus that go along with this, where will the next generation of brain surgeons come from? Who will be there to wade through dense pages of textbooks when the average student has lost the ability to focus on anything much longer than a Twitter feed?
That’s not to say that everyone who enters Poetry in Voice will keep honing those skills beyond the contest. Or that memorizing poetry is the only way to develop mental discipline and focus.
But Poetry in Voice reminds us that, along with the joy and beauty in verse and prose, the arts foster skills that carry over into practical matters like flying planes. That even as we rely on technology to do our thinking and remembering for us, It’s more important than ever to talk, as the Walrus once said, ?Of shoes?and ships?and sealing-wax / Of cabbages?and kings.?