Sunday, September 13, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Memorize a Poem Daily

One my favorite movies of the past few years is "The History Boys," in which a much-loved, older English teacher in a lower-tier British boy's school eschews a standard curriculum in favor of instilling the pure love of English language and literature into his teen-aged charges. One of his techniques was to require the memorization of poetry, at which the boys soon excelled. To the bemusement of a new, more modern teacher, the students could cite a line or two of an appropriate poem at any time.

Memorizing poetry is now considered hopelessly old-fashioned to teachers around the world. You won't find it on the standardized tests used to measure the effectiveness of our educational establishment, so why spend time on it? To be honest, the last poem I recall memorizing was "There Once Was a Puffin" in about fourth grade. In retrospect, I would have thought Mrs. Curtis could have done a little better than that bit of doggerel, but I also recall that memorizing was easy. Would that it were still so.

So I approach the thought of memorizing a poem each day with lots of trepidation, knowing that my memorization skills are a mere shadow of what they were at age nine. My first thought was to go for something truly epic, literally. I remember learning that the Homeric sagas went unwritten for centuries, relying on storytellers to recite them aloud to rapt audiences and to pass them on to the next generation. Wouldn't it be neat to recreate their experience! That idea lasted as long as it took me to pull my dusty copy of the Odyssey off the shelf and note the almost 500 pages with about 35 lines per page. Hmmm.....17,500 lines in 90 days or about 200 lines per day....I don't think so!

Sonnets, on the other hand, at 14 lines might be doable and there are plenty of good ones to choose from -- Shakespeare alone wrote 154 of them. (And one is tempted, of course, to mention haikus, but I'll resist the urge.) But there's no need to limit oneself to a single form. Find about 90 short poems that you love, or intrigue you, or amuse you, or sound wonderful when read aloud, and start memorizing. This is a HarvilleQuarter that will cost you nothing if you find poems on the Internet or use library books and can be done sitting in your favorite chair in your own living room.

If you're unsure where to look for poems, you might try a book tailored exactly to you - Committed to Memory -- 100 Best Poems to Memorize by John Hollander. According to the Website, "this is a gathering of a hundred-and-some poems chosen specifically for
memorization, and for the particularly intense kind of silent reading for which the reader prepares ... to commit to memory short poems, or passages of longer ones, that had particularly affected (him)." They were also chosen because they sound good when recited. Having perused the Table of Contents, I will observe that most of the poems are by well-known, mostly English authors, with a few Americans tossed in, and hail from the 19th Century or earlier. It may be a good starting point, but I'm personally planning to cast a wider net.

Another resource is Garrison Keillor's Good Poems, which includes at least a couple hundred poems, mostly of a page or two. These are works he's read on his daily radio program The Writer's Almanac, when he spends a few minutes talking about a literary figure or event connected to the date and ends with the reading of a poem. So at least we know that these poems can be read aloud and presumably were selected in part because they read well. Many of the poets are unfamiliar, at least to me, and are of recent vintage when compared with those in Committed to Memory. I'll confess I'm frequently unimpressed by the poems I've heard Garrison read on the show, but perhaps the fact that I'm usually in heavy traffic on University Avenue heading for work is partly responsible for my reaction.

I like the philosophy of Bob Holman and Margery Snyder, as quoted on You memorize because a "poem you are reading makes you stop dead, you hear the voice of the poet meld with your thought-process, the poem was written especially for you... Boom! You have to make this poem your own. YOU HAVE TO MEMORIZE IT."

I just hope I can find 90 short poems with that kind of impact on me.

It also strikes me that the mere act of memorizing, even if the poem does not make me stop dead but is simply appealing, will deepen its meaning. Spending that much time with the poem, saying it out loud, looking up any unfamiliar words. trying different speech inflections and rhythms, thinking about the reason the poet chose a particular word or image, will educe insights that went unnoticed during early readings. You may then start to feel that the poem "was written especially for you." And you'll amaze your friends and family as you start to drop appropriate poetic quotations into your conversations.

The image is "24 Poets and 1 Astronaut," a 2002 linocut by Marc Snyder. In case you're wondering they are:
First row Alfred, Lord Tennyson - Robert Browning - Walt Whitman - William Butler Yeats - Gertrude Stein Second row Robert Frost - Carl Sandburg - Wallace Stevens - J.D. - T. S. Eliot Third row Edna St. Vincent Millay - Neil Armstrong - E. E. Cummings - Langston Hughes - W. H. Auden Fourth row Randall Jarrell - John Berryman - Dylan Thomas - Gwendolyn Brooks - Philip Larkin
Fifth row Gregory Corso - Allen Ginsberg - Anne Sexton - Sylvia Plath - Frank O'Hara

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Another Dozen Examples

97. Learn to fish - or teach someone else to fish.
98. Create a computer index of old editions of a local newspaper.
99. Take a battlefield tour.
100. Memorize new jokes daily and compile a book of your favorite jokes.
101. Produce a series of soirees or salons.
102. Design and make Halloween costumes.
103. Create a book festival or another themed festival.
104. Create a family foundation.
105. Reread books you read as a student or young adult.
106. Help Habitat for Humanity build a house.
107. Make a guitar or other music instrument.
108. Repair old bicycles and give them to needy kids.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Do a Project for a Non-Profit Organization

Not-for-profit organizations are always looking for help, and I encourage retirees to sign up to provide recurring assistance, such as delivering Meals on Wheels, tutoring students or preparing meals for the homeless. On the other hand, non-profits also have needs for one-time but substantive projects requiring a major time commitment to complete - and an opportunity for a HarvilleQuarter for you.

These projects may require specialized skills you learned in your former profession or expertise you've acquired as a hobbyist or handyman. So this is not your run-of-the-mill volunteer task that requires only a strong back or ability to enter data accurately. This is a project of total immersion. You will plan, organize, carry out, perhaps supervise others, and have a deliverable at the end. You may even have a budget.

Some examples that come to mind are:
  • Implement a new computer system. This could include leading a thorough system selection process, interviewing vendors, arranging software demos, negotiating contracts, and then planning and supervising the implementation, including setting up hardware, installing software, writing documentation and training the employees and volunteers. Depending on the size and complexity of the system and the organization, this could easily outlast a single HarvilleQuarter, but if you have skills and experience to do this, you would be providing a lot of value to the non-profit. A less time-consuming variation would be helping the agency implement a system upgrade.
  • Plan and act as the general contractor for a remodeling and reconfiguration of the agency's physical space. Again, if you have the expertise to do this, the benefits to the agency will be substantial, both in financial savings and better results than if they tried to do this themselves. If your skills run more to manual labor, help remodel their office space with fresh paint and flooring, for example. If you have specific trade certifications, you can upgrade their wiring and plumbing, or re-roof their building, or reconfigure their space with new walls, cabinetry, lighting or shelving.
  • Develop a marketing plan and materials. If your pre-retirement education and responsibilities were as a marketer, you skills will be valuable to some not-for-profit. Just like companies in the private sector, they need to develop a brand, define target markets and create awareness of their services. Smaller organizations will likely not have these skills in-house and will be reluctant to use hard-won donations to pay market rates to secure them. You may also be able to help find non-retired professionals in your network to donate services with you or provide them at reduced costs.
  • If you skills tend toward writing and editing, use them for non-profits who live or die by their success in attracting grant support. Locate funding sources whose priorities match the agency's and then develop well-written proposals that underscore that match while meeting all the funder's specific proposal requirements. If you can do that, you will find a welcome mat at any number of small non-profits. Besides writing grants, you can help develop written marketing materials or redesign their newsletter, whether paper- or Web-based.
  • Fundraising will always be a welcome skill. If your business or personal network includes well-to-do individuals with an interest in common with your not-for-profit, help just by making introductions and by acquainting your friends with the work of the agency. If you have event planning skills, take on the planning and organization of a major fundraising event or a conference. This could be a chance to try out a new fundraising activity for the agency - that will become an annual event - and attract a new set of supporters for its mission.
  • Speaking of mission, non-profits periodically revisit and redefine theirs and they usually need help in doing so. If you have a background in strategic planning or meeting facilitation, you can make the process more efficient and less painful by organizing and leading the effort. You can also help with more mundane tasks such as rewriting bylaws and charters, redesigning the committee structure and updating position descriptions.
  • And speaking of position descriptions, human resource skills in general will be valued. A small agency may not have an HR professional, so help by training staff in interviewing and supervisory skills, developing or updating the employee handbook, and ensuring the organization is in compliance with employment-related laws and regulations.
I'm sure there are many more examples that you can think of where you can take on a significant project - one that a small not-for-profit can't do for itself or hire someone else to do - where your contribution will mark a real step forward for the agency and a source of pride and satisfaction for you.

One other alternative - instead of working alone over a period of weeks or months, tap your network and put together a team. I recently worked for an afternoon with the 23 employees of a local company, Platypus Technologies, to help a food pantry deal with some growing pains. The Platypus folks divided into three teams - one painted offices and restrooms in space the pantry was expanding into, another set up used shelving and reconfigured the existing food storage area for more capacity and better flow, and a third sorted through a tremendous quantity of donated clothing, putting the clothes on hangers and arranging by size and sex. In one afternoon, the amount accomplished was inspiring. Your best contribution may be to organize a similar "swat team" for an overwhelmed non-profit director.

The photograph shows the neat and well-stocked shelves of The River Food Pantry in Madison, Wisconsin. It was reproduced from a link to Flickr on the pantry's Website,