Readers React: The ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ that comes with reciting poetry


To the editor: Thanks, Joshua Curnett, for reminding me how good it felt teaching English to adolescents. (“The El Capitan of freshman English: Memorize a — gasp! — poem,” Opinion, May 27)

Retired after 40 years in front of the class, I forget how fun it could be, seeing young people getting really jazzed about something that I myself love. It can be a poem or an author, but also it can be the unexpected joy of learning about something that really fascinates. Heck, you might even find your life’s work in a high school English class.

This article is a nice change from reading so many bummer stories about schools lately: the teachers who must have a side job to augment their lousy salaries; the killings of kids and grownups at school; the idea that just teaching kids isn’t enough, that you might have to shoot another kid if necessary while throwing yourself in front of your own class.


I’ll bet most of Mr. Curnett’s kids still remember the poem they memorized — it’s part of them now.

Cheryl Clark, Long Beach


To the editor: I can’t think of a better exercise than Curnett’s assignment of a poem to be memorized and recited aloud.

As an actor and lifelong learner of lines, I still discover along with young actors I’ve taught the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that can overtake one in an exciting instant through a remembered line from Shakespeare learned perhaps years ago or just yesterday. The effect is immediate and breath-catching and leaves everyone in the classroom feeling attuned to something larger and better.

And now, Curnett has supplied us with a lovely addition in the poetry of James Wright. Thank you!

Nicholas Hormann, Pasadena



To the editor: Curnett’s story reminds me of my own experience in eighth grade.

We were asked to memorize a 15-line poem and recite it in class. I mistook “line” for “stanza” and went searching for a long poem, finally coming up with “Barbara Fritchie” by John Greenleaf Whittier.

I memorized the entire poem, known for its famous line, “Shoot if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag,” and recited it to the surprise of the other students, whose mouths dropped open as I went on and on. And on.

Half a century later, I can still recite the poem from memory and will occasionally do so, partly to see if I can still do it, but mostly to hear the groans of family members.

Nancy Goodman Lawrence, Mar Vista

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