In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates tells a story about the invention of writing, in which the Egyptian god Thoth shows his written characters to another god, Ammon, who rebukes him: "This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves." There were stories and songs—and songs that told stories—long before there was any writing, and they were kept alive not in libraries but through a cycle of reciting, listening, memorizing, and reciting anew. Each language drew on its own resources of sound structure for the aural patterns—the kinds of rhythm and repetition of sounds, words, phrases, and kinds of phrase—that made spoken poetry sound very different from ordinary discourse and, in particular, easier to commit to memory. But even after almost three millennia of written literature, poetry retains its appeal to the ear as well as to the eye; to hear a poem read aloud by someone who understands it, and who wishes to share that understanding with someone else, can be a crucial experience, instructing the silently reading eye ever thereafter to hear what it is seeing. Better yet is reading aloud that way oneself.
This is a gathering of a hundred-and-some poems chosen specifically for memorization, and for the particularly intense kind of silent reading with which a reader prepares to remember them. Even fifty years ago—let alone a hundred—this collection might have seemed an anomaly, in that most readers tended to commit to memory short poems, or passages from longer ones, that had particularly affected them. Moreover, they had been trained at school to memorize, and to recite from memory, a considerable number of specimens of verse in English, ranging from major poetry to relics of nineteenth-century recitation pieces. It is easier to memorize texts when you are younger than when older; but the practice, learned early, can be maintained. And thus, for matured readers, memorizing a poem or passage you liked, rather than one which had been required of you (but which, of course, you may very well have gotten to like eventually), was almost a matter of course. But this is no longer the case, and memorization—along with training in reading prose aloud, of which another word shortly—has disappeared from most school curricula.
At the same time, we have suffered a rapidly accelerating decay in the quality of oral performance of text in public life: television and radio newscasters fumble pronunciations and read even minimal prose with a decreasing sense of how the written word makes sense when sounded aloud. Persons appointed by commercial or governmental institutions to speak for them frequently read text aloud as if they don't understand even the grammar of what they are mouthing. Now, as we anxiously reassess the condition of education in our country, the relations among reading, listening, and understanding become more significant. Nowhere are these relations more intensely embodied than in the matter of spoken verse. And nowhere does one learn better how to read either verse or prose aloud than by recitation from memory. Needless to say, it is an element of true literacy to be able to recognize in fiction, essay, and later poetry (with a sense of familiarity rather than by consulting a professorial footnote) the allusions to passages of great poetry of the past—not merely to Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible—that fill the stream of discourse.