Too often memorization is used as a substitute for understanding. This is a somewhat standard criticism of education in many parts of the world and especially in Asia, though even in the US it’s incredibly common for students to memorize facts for a test and then forget them. I want to talk about alternative uses for memorization and why I believe that more and more, it ought to be used as a tool to generate and elevate our own writing and thinking.

There are numerous advantages to having a few longish poems tucked into your brain. In the first place, just by having the words to recall, you can peruse at will some of the best literature ever written. Great literature is, as they say, inexhaustible: we will never run out of new interpretations or ways of appreciating a text. Because of this, it’s never enough to just understand something – we must return to the text again and again so that we can re-understand it as an object foreign to ourselves.

But if you choose to use the words and themes of some of these writers, then you’re actually thinking by using their words and thoughts. Language is a tool of thought and it is always good to have some other people’s thoughts, unaltered and unassimilated, in your brain for the same reason that it’s always good to have more tools in a workshop. If a poet is worth memorizing, they almost certainly deploy the English language better than you do, and are worth paying attention to for that reason alone. And while you always have the option of direct quotation, the real value comes from how imitation, expansion, and inversion allow you deviate from direct quotation. Because you’ve internalized the literal words of the text you can generate an almost infinite number of variations on the same theme.

Consider one of my favorites, from Byron:

She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright 
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Now, how might you use this on the SAT or on some other writing test where it’s impossible to search online for inspiration?  You can imitate directly and in the same vein, if you’re discussing something beautiful. Let’s take my wife, spun into prose rather than poetry:

Phuong embodies all that’s best of the foreign and the familiar. She is foreign: she speaks a foreign language and is from a foreign country. As a woman her mind is often quite foreign to me. But she is also familiar: we have lived, breathed, and thought together for a long time. These opposites have met to create the tender beautiful woman that I love, the mother of my children, and to whom I would deny nothing. 

I wrote this quickly and I’m sure I could deploy Byron more effectively, but I’m trying to demonstrate a point. I have deliberately borrowed the themes and vocabulary from the bits of the poet I have in my head. I know the theme (the collision of opposites) works, because it worked for Byron. I know the vocabulary works for the same reason. I know that both are likely to be accepted by my audience, because my audience is more or less the same as Byron’s. Having models in your head saves you a lot of legwork, especially if you’re a non-native speaker and don’t have an intuitive sense of which words or themes are likely to ring true with your audience.
You can also invert the poem if you are discussing an opposite subject and wish to achieve an opposite effect. Again, off the top of my head and not straining myself:

He walks in waste like a rat in a sewer, and all that’s worst of filth and slime meet in his moldy coat and blood-shot eyes. He is ugliness clothed in darkness and wrapped in a stench that light itself flees from. This is the brutal man inside me that I struggle to contain and whose desires I daily deny. 

This passage is a bit more reminiscent of the original poem than the previous, but everything is flipped. Again, I’m sure that it could be made better, but it’s not bad for about 30 seconds work. Having read a thousand or so SAT essays, this kind of diction, essentially the negative of Byron’s original, would substantially elevate any in essay in which it was included. Because it’s the negative of something that is coherent, at the very least you know that the image you produce will be coherent. Although it’s good to keep in mind that inverting a text doesn’t always produce predictable results. Here’s some inverted Kipling:

Set down the white man’s burden
Send forth the worst ye breed,
Go bind your slaves in exile,
To serve their captors need
To wait in heavy harness
On noble folk and good
Their new found foreign masters
Half angel and half God.

This is a more or less total inversion of the first stanza of one of my favorite poems, The White Man’s Burden, by Rudyard Kipling. I think the result of this inversion is at least interesting, and if you know about the ideology that sits behind the poem, inverting it might give you several ironic turns of phrase that you could use in an essay discussing colonialism. The original reads like this, by the way:

Take up the White Man’s Burden,
send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild,
Your new caught sullen peoples
Half devil and half child.

Even direct quotations can be used creatively and to dramatic effect.

I was sitting in traffic the other day. If you live in Vietnam, you know what creates traffic: it’s not that there are so many cars, it’s not that the roads are bad, it’s that people here don’t take turns. Instead of a cooperative effort, Vietnamese traffic is a free for all in which every person tries to move himself forward at the expense of everyone else. I can count on one hand the number of times someone has let me merge into traffic here. Often, you can even see the jam mere meters in front of you and also the acres of bare pavement that stretch in front of it – acres that would be orderly occupied if only people would take turns. You’re nearly there, you’re nearly free, but then you have to wait 5 minutes more while two cars fight for the two inches in front of their fenders and ignore the furlongs ahead of them. More Kipling:
and when your goal is nearest

(the end for others sought)
watch sloth and heathen folly
bring all your hope to naught…

I’m not proud of it (ok, I’m a little proud of it). But it was very appropriate to the situation and captured my feelings – dark and imperialist though they might have been – more accurately and succinctly than I could have unaided by the bits of Kipling I’ve stuck into my brain.

Memorizing great literature isn’t just something that ought to be done for the sake of livening up your writing when you can’t reach for a keyboard. It can allow you to, as one of my students put it, channel your feelings into the medium. There is something immensely comforting about knowing the thoughts you’ve thought have been thought before by people smarter than you.  Communing with England’s poet of Empire while on my way to work is one of the most distinctive and memorable experiences I’ve had in Vietnam. Anyway, it made the traffic much more bearable.

And so, struggling students, I leave you with the line that pops into my head whenever one of you wishes that you could cheat, blames me for not letting you write your own letters of recommendation, or otherwise think ignoble and unworthy thoughts:

Take up the white man’s burden
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard
The cry of hosts ye humor,
Ah slowly towards the light
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”.

And the lines with which I reproach myself when I’m tired, or sad, or don’t want to continue:

Take up the white man’s burden
Ye dare not stoop to less
Nor call too loud on freedom
To cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper
By all ye leave or do
The silent sullen peoples,
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

(Do you understand how the inclusion of memorized text can elevate a piece of writing yet? Good, you’re getting the hang of it.)

Justin Shelby