I’m a hopeless romantic in many ways (that will probably crop up over time as I keep writing). One of them is that I like poetry, and I like knowing poetry. Knowing a poem, or any text, by heart feels cool and empowering, and also like something I should absolutely never tell people because I’m afraid that it would look like arrogance, like people being douchebags about knowing some Latin. But this is my ramble blog, so ramble I will. Why do I like learning texts?
First off, and I’m afraid this is and was really the first reason: It makes me part of an in-group. A good way to become part of any social group is to put in some work upfront, which serves as a marker to show your dedication to your group bond. It can be something like adopting a shared language, or references to in-group knowledge, which show that you put in time and thought to learn how the group functions. It can be organising events or participating visibly, going door-to-door, undergoing a ritual involving preparation, … anything that comes with a cost. That’s really sensible in a way, because it protects a group from bad actors undermining it effortlessly.
Knowing even only a bit of literature intimately is an entrance fee for a huge international loose group, or rather, a huge amount of loose groups. It will help you spot references others make (you don’t have to become an obnoxious reference-maker yourself!) and react appropriately. You can read Umberto Eco books and discover maybe 1% of the quotes he hides throughout. One book I love very much consists mostly of more and less obscure quotes. And you’ll have a good way to talk to people whose interests are at least somewhat adjacent to the literature you invested time in – and since many areas of interest share a border with literature in some way, that’s a lot of people. For instance, my family likes to quote freely from a whole bunch of poems, so the first poems I learnt were pure self-defence!
But also, and I should have put this first because it sounds less hacky and more lofty: Having passages trivially available to you gives you a different, deeper connection with them. You’ll discover that they apply to situations throughout life in surprising ways that you hadn’t considered before, so you basically carry your very own Tarot deck in your head. They’ll occur to you in weird situations, and grow older with you.
Plus, it is very reassuring to be able to recite a long poem in your head in some situations. Particularly if you’re in an uncomfortable spot, for example in a hospital, or spending a long uncomfortable waiting period somewhere, any distraction is good. I had to undergo surgery a couple of times in the past, which placed me in situations where I could either not have a book or phone with me (boo, contamination), or I was too addled with the excellent pain meds I was given – falling back on long poems gave me something to do, and because I knew them so well, they also had a calming familiar feeling to them.
So yeah, that’s my case for learning poetry or other literature by heart.
PS: This is not an appeal to make kids do it. I know that out of our class of 24, at most three kids really enjoyed it, probably less, and we were an extraordinarily nerdy group of people. Education is complex and I have no meaningful opinion on the matter, especially since I started learning poetry before school required it and continued afterwards as if school never happened.
PPS: This is actually one of the very late issues cropping up when learning a language. I’m somewhat fluent in English, but there is literally no English poem (unless you count song lyrics) that I know completely. I can quote bits and pieces of the terribly overused ones, like the triumvirat of YouTube poetry, If, Invictus, and The Road Not Taken. Plus a bit of Shakespeare, but mostly couplets at a time at most, stuff like that. But sometimes a reference crops up to some implicit canon that most school kids were put through and suddenly I find myself with new references to find and learn and contextualise.