On the sticking power of poetry

Dale of mole has been posting about poetry and memorization, and how it makes poetry “available when we are in the moment of need or desire.” I can’t resist following that lead. It’s a subject on which I’ve now written about a ream of academic prose, but my fascination with poetry’s memorability goes back much farther than my choice of dissertation topic. I started deliberately learning poems by heart when I was thirteen, and I did it because I really, really hated to run.

My eighth-grade gym teacher would periodically make us run a mile’s worth of laps around the track next to our athletic field. I’ve never been much of a runner, and I usually ran the first few laps and walked the rest, bored out of my skull and hating everything, but especially the chore of having to trudge in an endless loop at 7:30 in the morning. Repeating poems to myself was the only way I could stand it. At first all I could remember were a few lines at a time, but before long I started to work at it, and as I plodded, I would be thinking “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…” or “I met a traveler from an antique land, / Who said, Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert…” or “They shut the road through the woods / Seventy years ago.”

The thing about remembering a poem, one line at a time, one word leading to another, anticipating when the next rhyme is coming around or where the line is about to break — the great thing about it is that it’s a form of heightened concentration. It helps push other thoughts to the side. Almost as if the poem were a mantra, or a charm against “whatever it is that’s encroaching” (to borrow a phrase from Charles Simic). Poetry sometimes seems to be quite close, even now, to its early roots in incantation, and I think memorization brings one near those roots. It certainly worked that way when I invoked Coleridge and Keats against the tedium of running. I’ve been having an unusually rough couple of weeks, and I’m finding that it still does. Now it’s more likely to be Ashbery, or Stevens, or Bishop, or Yeats, but the fact that they’re still there in my head is strangely encouraging.

I once had a student tell me at the end of the term that he had loved John Donne’s Holy Sonnet VII, the one about Donne’s grief for the death of his wife. He (the student, that is) had just lost a family member, and he said the poem helped put into words what he was feeling. It moved him so much that he memorized it. Years later, I still think of that student and wonder if that poem stayed with him. I hope it did; I know the poems I’ve lived with have stayed with me.

3 Responses to “On the sticking power of poetry”

  1. Patricia says:

    Reading this post made me think of the late Joseph Brodsky, who taught at Mount Holyoke from the mid-late 1970s until his death in 1996. Students taking Brodsky’s poetry class had to memorize a thousand lines of verse for the semester. (Sadly, I didn’t take this class; I took his class on Russian poetry, which he taught at nearby Amherst, and he didn’t have us memorize any lines of the Russian poems we read–although I did end up doing some verses on my own. One of the treats of taking this class was his offer afterward of a lift back to MHC in his car, which my friend and I always accepted.) As he liked to say, poetry came before everything–and it seemed he recited poetry and talked about it with this truth in mind.
    I think I shall have to read some Brodsky now and memorize something of his again! Thanks for the post!

  2. Jane Dark says:

    I think that the first poem I set out to memorize, all for my own reasons, and not for any school assignment, was Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.
    I chanted it as I ran laps (except for the year when I chanted various scenes from Les Miserables); and I still chant it. And to this day, I suspect that it has come to live with me, and keeps me safe when I am out alone at night.

  3. Amanda says:

    Patricia, I had a couple of Classics professors in college who made us memorize ancient Greek — from Sophocles’ Antigone one quarter and from the Iliad the next. We had a choice of reciting our lines from Sophocles or writing them down (most of us chose the latter), but we all had to recite from the Iliad. It was a bit embarrassing, but also neat to be rolling dactylic hexameters off one’s tongue.
    And Jabberwocky! That was one of my first favorite poems, and I can still recite most of it, though a few lines always escape me here and there.