memorizing poems

2 posts

The Most Precious Gift: Declamation

roth

These days, gift-giving is too much about cursors and clicks to cart. Material goods bought with plastic shipped to porches by UPS.

You don’t need to be a poet, however, to give a better gift to someone you love: declamation. This came to mind while reading the May issue of The Atlantic. In a piece called “Being Friends with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor, the latter mentions Roth’s 74th birthday party.

Apparently Roth turned to the assembled guests and, casual as all get-out, asked if anyone cared to recite a poem from memory. As if that was still done. As if each guest had brought a poem gift-wrapped in their brain pan.

To kick things off, Roth recited a Mark Strand poem: “Keeping Things Whole.” According to Taylor, Roth “then looks at me as if to say, ‘Your serve.'” Luckily, Taylor was able to return volley. He recited Robert Frost’s lesser known poem “I Could Give All to Time.”

Roth was so impressed that he brought it up on the phone the next morning: “Those rhymes!” he said to Taylor. “It’s as if nature made them.”

And I thought, how cool. Shouldn’t this happen more often? Not just between writers of poetry, but between readers of poetry, too?

Anyway, it was enough to set me to the task of memorizing both, starting with the easier—the Strand piece. So here’s to you two, Philip and Benjamin.

Oh. And Mark and Robert, too!

 

Keeping Things Whole
Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

 

I Could Give All to Time
Robert Frost

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

Why You Should Memorize a Poem

canis-major

One of the profoundest things I learned in college came from an English professor who was once a prisoner of war during WWII. He said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout the drudgery and misery of his captivity, he would recite poems in his mind – words he had captured himself during schooldays. These poems became his company. His friends and succor. Without that, he said, he would almost surely have gone mad.

This morning, venturing into the crisp, 30-something degree dark with the dog, I was greeted as usual by the cheerful stars. It’s in those darkest-before-dawn hours that they seem sharpest, brightest, as if they save their diamond best as a treat for early risers.

And the friendliest October constellations to greet me? Orion, of course, with Canis Major, his faithful hunting dog, at his heels. I greet both dog and hunter by reciting aloud a Robert Frost poem I memorized long ago. Owning that poem makes me feel good, and the celestial dog seems to appreciate the attention to. Here’s what I say to the dark (“Canis Major” by Robert Frost):

The great Overdog,
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye,
Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

Each cloud-free morning, when I recite the poem, I watch the words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. Together they rise in the sky to join Canis Major, and Orion doesn’t seem to mind a bit. (I’m Sirius!)

On days starting like today, I often think of my professor and how right he was. And you don’t have to be a prisoner of war to benefit, either. You might be a prisoner of sadness. Or circumstances. Or boredom. Memorizing a poem will take care of your blues, I promise. Try it!