On Memorization

New Year's resolution: memorize more poetry.

The first poem I learned on purpose was Rupert Brooke’s “Sonnet.” I picked “Sonnet” out of the Norton anthology not because I was interested in Brooke (who Yeats deemed “the handsomest young man in England”) or in iambic pentameter, but because of a guy: S., my first college boyfriend, had taken the course a quarter earlier and that was the poem he’d memorized. I practiced in the dining hall, recited on the rocks along Lake Michigan. The old-fashioned English felt awkward, practically foreign. What the heck was a “Stygian tide”?

Ten years later, at a bar in San Francisco, that long-ago beau and I bumbled through “Sonnet” over beers and tequila. Dredging up those lines made me emotional in a way the poem itself never had. I realize what affected me back then was his cadence, the weight in his voice—S. had been a theater guy, though now he's in med school and still enunciates circles around me—and a confidence I find myself reaching for whenever I read my own work.

His hair was wild and wavy. I secretly applied the line, “Now turn and toss your brown delightful head,” to him while we chanted iambs on my single dorm bed. But never would I have told him so. At eighteen, sarcasm was king; earnestness didn’t come til much later. One phrase we mocked for its melodrama, “most individual and bewildering ghost” now seems to me, at almost-thirty, an apt description for a couple people I’ve known.

During my senior year, I took another poetry class and encountered what’s become my all-time favorite poem: “How To Like It,” by Stephen Dobyns. It was a bit long, and the instructor assigned no memorization, so it wasn’t until years later that I learned it by heart. That summer after college, I moved to Japan. Before I left, I bought a Dobyns collection that included “How To Like It” and gave it to P., the guy I was leaving behind.

Committed to memory, poems act like songs; the experience of them is physical. When I recite “How To Like It,” I always stress the same words, pause for this line break while running through that one, accentuate the meter there. The rhythm’s organic; I find myself playing up slant rhymes I’d never have noticed on the page. I’ve internalized the poem so completely that I notice myself plagiarizing its syntax in my own writing. Robert Pinsky was onto something: “anyone who has memorized a lot of poetry…can’t fail to write coherent sentences and paragraphs.”

That first year I was in Japan, P. wrote out the entire book for me by hand. I still have it; I will always have it. He copied a poem from the book every day we were apart, adding personal notes about what was going on at the time—“ladybug just landed on the page, here” and later, when I returned his ring, I felt maybe I should have returned this fat, tattered collection of pages bound by blue electrical tape and a metal clip instead. I returned the ring at an IHOP in central Florida, and then we went to a minor league baseball game. We drank apple-flavored malt liquor in the parking lot while waiting out a rain delay. On the way home it poured so hard I had to pull over. I was new to driving long ways alone and I panicked when my windshield fogged up and I called up my new boyfriend to ask for help and he told me about the defroster. When I turned it on things became clear again very quickly.

All of this comes to mind when I speak the first line of that poem: These are the first days of fall. I think of all the friends I’ve passed the poem to, especially the ones who’ve connected with it strongly—John used the title for his blog, and has memorized the poem himself. (We’re going to volley lines back and forth next time we’re at a party…that's right! Get crazy!) I think of the Northwestern grad student who included the poem in his course pack, who, coincidentally, was in last winter’s issue of Alimentum with me. I think of the few who’ve heard me nervously recite it (I have to keep my eyes closed), the poems they’ve shared, and the depth of a person you witness during such a performance. Last summer at Fishtrap, a new friend casually busted out H.C. Chase’s “Ladle Rotten Hut,” probably the coolest (and, okay, only) literary party trick ever. Text and audio of this awesome example of homophonic translation can be found here, though Jon’s version was better—he recited it twice as fast and didn’t miss a beat.

Hear Dobyns read “How To Like It” (starts at 6:35).

What poems do you have memorized? Any suggestions? "Hot Ass Poem" by Jennifer Knox ought to be on everyone's list, don't you think?


T.S. Eliot Reads Prufrock

The man himself reads "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I wish I sounded this awesome when I read.

I wonder what he'd think about being on Youtube.



Zugzwang, the first chapbook by John W. Evans, a hugely talented poet who I'm lucky to call a friend, is now available from Rocksaw Press.

Read an interview with John and learn his opinion of Midwestern cuisine and yellow cheeses.

Support small presses and exquisite, accessible, contemporary poetry--order more than one.

(Also, as of 12/4, read excerpts from John's longer elegy project, "The Katie Ghazals," at Hayden's Ferry Review.)