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By Gerry Boyle 78
Heard amid the chit-chat at Jorgensen's Cafe on Main Street in Waterville one afternoon last May were the graceful words of Shakespeare's sonnets, the dramatic speeches of Antony and Cleopatra and even the voices of God and Satan as imagined by Milton in Paradise Lost.
Students in 17th Century Poetry, taught by Assistant Professor of English Elizabeth Sagaser, recited four to six poems or passages from memory. Thisand the subsequent in-depth discussionwas the students' final examination.
While some might associate recitation with a now scoffed-at past when learning was mostly by rote, Sagaser begs to differ. "The actual act of memorizing poetry, of committing language to your brain, is really a rich and productive process," she said.
That process culminated with students taking their places, one at a time, across from Sagaser at a table in Jorgensen's front window where she spent the better part of three days. She sipped a large cappucino; some students brought coffee. And then they recited. Shakespeare and Donne. Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick. Some students were stirringly dramatic. Others were quietly reflective. "Nobody was wooden," Sagaser said. "Everybody had some thoughtfulness to what they were saying."
Reciting from memory is much more than a break from a written final exam, she said. The process encourages students to hear the rhythms of the poem, to consider why certain words were chosen, to adopt the persona of the speaker, to consider ways the poem can be interpreted. Students took to it like bards. "Let recitation rule," said John M. Hobson '02. Memorizing poems forced him to understand every word of the poems and feel the mood shifts and expressions, he said.
Ryan Davis '02 said he got the poems into his head and then couldn't get them out: "When I tell people this, they laugh and say, 'You get poems stuck in your head? Boy, you are an English major, aren't you?'"
Students were encouraged to choose poetry that they would like to carry with them long after the course was completed. Sagaser, who carries some 75 poems around in her head at all times, treated her interviewer to an impromptu recitation of Shakespeare's Sonnet 64:
"When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age. . ."
Sagaser said she recites poems to her children in place of lullabies, which has led to discussion of metaphor at bedtime. And she's well aware of the benefits of listening to poetry rather than reading it on the page. In that way the final examination for 17th Century Poetry may have done some collateral good for the larger Colby community. "I guess there are roommates all over the campus who know these poems now," Sagaser said.
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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