Sunday, November 29, 2009

Memorize a New Poem Daily, the Sequel

Loyal readers of this blog may have noticed a gap in the frequency of my postings. In fact, it's been more than a month. This is not completely accidental. I've been busy memorizing poems.

It occurred to me it was only fair, after listing 100 activities to do when one retires, that I should try out at least one of them and report back. The obstacle to this plan, of course, is that I'm not actually retired. So I needed an activity I could test out in my so-called "spare time." Memorizing some poems, although not on a daily basis, seemed a reasonable place to start.

This led to the realization that my poetry collection is pitifully small - OK, it's nonexistent - so I trundled off to my local library and returned with an armful of volumes with titles such as Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize, 100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Three Centuries of American Poetry, Poems to Read, and 100 essential modern poems. And, yes, the title of the last one is not capitalized on its cover. And, yes, it does include a poem by e. e. cummings, although in the book he's listed as E. E. Cummings. Go figure.

So, over the past few weeks, I can safely say I've read more poems than in the rest of my life all together. I recognize this is not something to be proud of, since I can't have read that many poems in a month while holding a full-time job, and that's true. Recreational poetry reading has not been high on my list of ways to while away the odd hour. Although I've stumbled across a few I remembered from high school and college classes, the great majority have been completely new to me, even if written four centuries ago.

I've also discovered there are not that many poems that so intrigue me I feel compelled to memorize them --- but I have found some and I have indeed memorized them. Not without some difficulty, but I'm happy to report I can in fact memorize a poem, and even enjoy the process. Here's my list so far:
  1. Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill (by far the most challenging and time-consuming to memorize, but very satisfying to recite now)
  2. May Swenson, Question
  3. Billy Collins, Forgetfulness (a little gem that seems written for this project - as soon as I read it, I knew it would be next on my list)
  4. Philip Sidney, My True Love Hath My Heart
  5. Thomas Hardy, The Oxen (a great poem for reciting at Christmas)
  6. Stevie Smith, Not Waving But Drowning
  7. Walt Whitman, When I Heard at the Close of Day
I have a few more queued up, but I've been disappointed to read so many to find the small number I wanted to memorize, even in a book subtitled "100 Best Poems to Memorize." I hope when I get to this HarvilleQuarter in retirement, I'll be able to find one a day for a full quarter.

One question I'm still pondering is whether, once memorized, these poems will stay memorized. Just how much "maintenance" will it take to keep them in the memory bank? So far, I've been able to talk through them each day and after a few days they seem to stick. However, the seven above poems can be recited in about 10 minutes total. As the number of poems grows, a daily recitation will not be practical so my real recall ability will be put to the test.

I have learned a few lessons. It is easier to memorize a poem with rhymes and a well defined meter, although most of the ones I chose do not meet these criteria. I found I really have to think about the words, really notice them, consider why the poet chose this particular one and not another, pay attention to alliteration and words with rhyming vowel sounds, and make sure I fully understand what's going on in the poem, the narrative thread - which they seem to have in some sense.

I have proven the hypothesis of my previous post that memorizing a poem does deepen its meaning so you begin to feel a real connection with the poet. I'm enjoying the process and, in terms of HarvilleQuarters criteria, I am acquiring new skills and knowledge. It feels playful and a bit risky (I wasn't sure I could do it) and even feels creative. It definitely has brought me satisfaction. I haven't yet met any new people as a result, but that could come. Somewhere in Madison, there must be a group that gets together regularly to recite poetry. If not, maybe I'll start one.

And since the topic is memorization, I'd like to end by quoting the first lines of the Billy Collins poem, Forgetfulness:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even
heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

The image is of a cover painted for an edition of Fern Hill by Murray Kimber and found at

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