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This man memorized Paradise Lost — and you can too!

May 27, 2010


John Basinger: "Death addresses Satan."


At a time most of us don’t bother to memorize phone numbers, thanks to our mobile phones, and GPS makes it unnecessary to remember even how to get home from work, a 76-year-old community college teacher has committed Paradise Lost to memory.

That’s John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a loooong narrative poem we’re talking about — 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000 words, according to the Guardian, or about the same amount of verbiage as a 350-page novel, adds the Hartford Courant.

Now psychologists from the journal Memory have tested Basinger, finding not only is his feat genuine, but it is also reproducible. “Exceptional memorizers” like Basinger, Memory reports, “are made, not born, and that cognitive expertise can be demonstrated even in later adulthood.”

The study, conducted by John Seamon, a professor in Wesleyan University’s psychology department, went like this: Researchers read two lines chosen at random from Paradise Lost, with  Basinger challenged to recite the next 10. His success rate? Ninety percent.

Basinger is thrilled to have his achievement granted scientific verification. “For one thing, it establishes that this is not folklore,” he said. “It’s proven that I have done this; there’s no way that I could have faked this.”

According to the Courant, Basinger began memorizing Paradise Lost in 1993, after he retired from teaching theater and sign language at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn. He was looking for a challenge — he wanted “to do something big for the Millennium” — and he hoped to revive an oral storytelling tradition “that has pretty much died away.”

Basinger spent eight years memorizing the poem, a few lines a day — often while at the gym. This,  says Seamon, supports earlier research indicating that brief daily sessions work better than long, intense cramming sessions.

“As I finished each book, I began to perform it and keep it alive in repertory while committing the next one to memory,” Basinger says. “The goal eventually became not just a series of performances, but to do all twelve books on the same occasion.”

Now according to his website, Basinger keeps up a busy schedule performing sections of the poem. He’s popular with teachers, students, general audiences and slam poetry events. He’s twice performed Paradise Lost in its entirety, in 2001 and 2008, a feat that takes three eight-hour days.

Basinger has an ordinary memory in every day life, reports the Courant — he forgot one appointment with the reporter, and called to apologize. Apparently if he can do it, anyone can. And Seamon says taking on fresh intellectual challenges is a way to stave off age-related cognitive decline.

Does all this make you feel inadequate?

The last poem I memorized, “If,” Rudyard Kipling’s anthem to stout manliness, was for an eighth-grade program. I almost know Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” by heart, it’s so short and lovely and pungent (it has a very dirty word in the first line).

I once thought of learning my all-time favorite poem, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but it seemed too long and it made me tired to think about. I just checked: It’s comes in at around 300 words. I blame the pedagogical trends of my childhood– I was educated in the ’60s and early ’70s, when memorization and recitation fell out of favor. It couldn’t be as simple as my daydreamy laziness. Right?

In the interests of preserving mental acuity and, perhaps, making ourselves unbearable at parties, let’s all commit to memorizing one poem — of any length. I’ll have another go at Marvell (“Had we but world enough and time/ This coynes, lady, were no crime…”).

Meanwhile, you share with us a favorite poem you’d like to commit to memory. C’mon! It’ll be fun!

21 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    May 27, 2010 1:36 pm

    I am impressed! Although I think I would pick something other than “Paradise Lost” I find his actions quite commendable. Also, it makes me feel a little guilty, well not guilty…actually it gives me hope. I always thought that I was just not a memorizer, that my brain didn’t work like that. And rather than frustrating me, it gives me hope to think that I too could memorize “Paradise Lost” (or something else) if I really wanted to. I know three poems by heart, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Fire and Ice” (both by Robert Frost) and “This Be The Verse” by Philip Larkin. I think that my brain definitely has a better time with things that rhyme and have a definitive rhythm to them.

    I also know a lot of lines or couple of lines from poems like “How lovely you are today New York, like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime, and St Bridget’s Steeple leaning a little to the left, I just jumped out of a bed full of V days, I got tired of D days, and blue you there still…” (Frank O’Hara).

    I had a room mate in college who was really into memorizing poems she started with “Oh Captain, My Captain” and went from there. I just spoke to her recently and she is back at it. I was impressed but sort felt like….well, good for you. But actually you know I think it might be good for me to exercise my memory a bit and really try and learn a poem.

    Thanks for sharing Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 12:46 am

      Back when I was a church mouse, I could recite substantial portions of Scripture, but that’s faded over the past 15 years or so. I used to mock memorization and recitation as inferior teaching techniques, best suited to subtly enforce conformity. I realize now how wrong I was.

      My old friend Edmund Skellings, the poet laureate of Florida, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, claimed he could recite every poem he’d ever read. In the several years I knew him well, I never caught him out. He would mention a poem in the course of a conversation, and then the next thing you know he’s reciting it complete in a supple basso voice. Yes, I was profoundly impressed. By the way, he was over 70 when I first met him.

  2. Tommy Smart permalink
    May 27, 2010 1:45 pm

    That’s, what??? What?

    I have no desire to memorize “Paradise Lost”. Nor do I have any desire whatsoever to attend three eight hour(!) session of recitations. But good for John Basinger. And good for the audience, who I am sure had other plans, maybe at a Star trek convention somewhere.

    When I first read this blog, I was reminded of the recent film “The Book of Eli” where Denzel Washington has memorized the entire King James Bible. I thought, “Impossible, no one can do anything like that”. I guess they can.

    On poem memorization: I have memorized ” A Psalm of Life”‘ by H.W. Longfellow, and I used to know “The Walrus and The Carpenter” by Carroll, both of which are puny compared to Basinger’s accomplishment.

    In honor of this blog and also in honor of the book I am currently reading, “A Voyage Long And Strange” by Tony Horowitz, I will now set out to memorize “The Skeleton In Armor” also by Longfellow.

    Wish me luck, and remember it’s your fault if I corner you one day with my “I was a Viking old!”.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 12:51 am

      Well, you know Homer and other ancient Greek bards are said to have memorized epic poems of many thousands of verses, like the Iliad and the Odyssey. The books of the Bible must have been passed down orally in the centuries and millennia before the Hebrews acquired literacy. Traditional peoples have storytellers who recite the legends and histories of the tribe. And today I’ve heard of Muslim clerics who claim they can recite the Koran, front to back.

      I don’t doubt them. I believe that rhyme and rhythm and powers of the human mind most of us are not using these days make prodigious feats of memorization possible for almost anyone.

      Have you ever wondered about ear worms, our propensity to get a song or jingle stuck maddeninly in the mind? I believe that’s a vestigial function of the part of the brain that makes memorization possible.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 27, 2010 2:13 pm

    I still remember long sections of various Shakespeare poems we had to memorize in high school, Casey at the Bat, Little Orphan Annie, and several bible verses. If these don’t count, I’ll go for “The Pool Players” by Gwendolyn Brooks. Hee.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 12:52 am

      You’re younger than me, and I don’t remember having to memorize hardly anything. And I graduated from high school, too — if just barely.

  4. May 27, 2010 2:35 pm

    Charming story and feat. An inspiration. I know much of Prufrock. I should finish memorizing the rest.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 12:53 am

      I have not attempted to memorize Prufrock, but it was the first modernist work that opened itself to me and thereby opened an entire world of literature and understanding. It’s a great piece of work.

  5. Sean permalink
    May 27, 2010 2:49 pm

    I’m going with Poe because I can remember lines but not whole pieces, and I think I’ve got a Poe anthology somewhere. There’s one poem tacked on my fridge that I should commit to memory, since I see it every day: ‘Possum’ by Cassandra Dickson.

    (p.s. poem ends with the ‘fringe of birds’ line so never mind the link underneath that says click to read rest of article)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 12:55 am

      Yeah, Poe is heavily rhythmic, with strong rhyme schemes and other aids to memorization, like the repetition of The Raven. Thanks fr the link. Hey! I’ve read that poem, somewhere, some time. Wow.

  6. May 27, 2010 6:12 pm

    That is an extremely impressive feat. I think that’s it’s cool that someone chose to do something like this in this day and age. I know that back before the printed word became easily accessible, this kind of memorization was practiced more frequently. Another example of something we have lost because of technology. It makes me wonder what we will give up in the future with more technological advances.

    “Oh Captain, My Captain” is the one and only poem I have ever memorized. An assignment for my 8th grade english class. However, I know the words to countless songs by heart (many of them Steve Earle songs) does that count?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 12:56 am

      It doesn’t count as much as memorized poetry, but it does count for something. I think our fascination with song has made it the poetry of our debased age.

  7. John Karwacki permalink
    May 28, 2010 9:41 am

    In a lame reference to the Wesleyan psychologist: “We can’t all be sailors but we were all semen once.” I tend to memorize one-liners. I skated through a respectable Jesuit high school education by memorizing my lessons while challenging honest study as a result of chemically bombarding my brain. “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up medicine.” I do not think memorization equals comprehension.. Consider Milton’s line from “Paradise Regained” – “Deep versed in books and shallow in himself.” However, Mr. Basinger’s feat is indeed impressive as I cannot remember what I ate for breakfast today. Thanks Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 2:14 pm

      I grew up with a deep suspicion of memorization, but maybe that was just laziness looking for justification. I know think it’s best to balance things, and view memorization as a healthy part of a good breakfast. I mean, a useful part of a good education.

  8. May 28, 2010 11:14 am

    Kay Ryan is a good one for memory games. A kind of female Larkin, her poems read like adult lullabies: sing-songy, light and dense at once. Unlike lullabies though, they aim to awaken rather than lull to sleep…

    Here’s a link:

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 28, 2010 2:16 pm

      I was not familiar with Kay Ryan, Yahia. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Sean permalink
      May 28, 2010 5:35 pm

      @Yahia Just read Ryan’s ‘Felix Crow’ and ‘Blandeur.’ She’s one sharp knife, and can she ever deadpan. Thanks for the recommendation. S.

  9. May 28, 2010 12:20 pm

    Chauncey, back in 1995 my mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. She didn’t know my name or the names of my sisters. It was a bad time for all of us. Watching her lose her mind frightened me beyond words for a while. But when it was over I decided that I would memorize the first page of Finnegans Wake – “riverrun past Eve and Adam’s to swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a comodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs” etc. etc. – and use it as a way to test myself, believing (hoping) that as long as I can quote such a difficult piece I won’t get Alzheimer’s. I applaud Basinger’s feat. Something I could never do, but any sort of intense memorization is a lubricant for the mind, I believe. Had we but world enough and time, indeed.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 28, 2010 2:20 pm

    “Though we cannot make our sun
    Stand still, yet will we make him run.”

    Thanks for the touching story about your mother, Duff. A dignified death is vouchsafed to but a few of us, I fear.

    • August 23, 2010 10:46 am

      Chauncey, having just now run across your site, let me thank you for your reference to my efforts. And for the wonderful emails from your readers. One of the greatest pleasures of the whole enterprise for me is talking with people who in response to hearing me deliver Milton’s story resolve and in fact do turn to something that they had long wanted to know, eg Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, The Prophet, and in one case, several of the cantos of The Divine Comedy in the original old Italian. I applaud your efforts. I hope you have pressed on. Thanks. I assume that you are connected with Miami Dade Community College. One of the neatest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for was Wayne Silver who back in the ’80s left Dade where he was a dean and came to Ct to the then Mohegan Community College as academic dean. Oh, and just for fun, being as susceptible to recognition as the next fellow, I count myself as having arrived since The National Examiner featured me along with John Milton and PL in its August 2 issue. All the best. John Basinger

  11. June 19, 2012 10:22 am

    h.w longfellow is awesome……….

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