Memorizing Poems

I should, by all rights, be in bed. I’ve been up since 5am, it’s now 1am. And I’ve got a long, intense day ahead tomorrow. But insomnia has set in. I even tried getting in bed, but no dice. As soon as my head hit the pillow something occurred to me, and the thought was suddenly desperate: I’m forgetting poems I’ve memorized.

Terrifying. For the last few years I’ve taken great delight in memorizing poems. I suppose, though, it reaches back even farther — the trend started my senior year of high school when I did an oral interpretation of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. (You can read my entry on that poem on my company’s blog…) . I found that more than the poem itself I loved the prosody of it, the rhyme, the way the words rippled off my tongue. Soon I was memorizing more poems, but the whole thing took off when I moved to New York a few years ago. During my long commute on the crowded subway, it was too hard to read a book — so why not memorize poems?

But now, suddenly, I’m terrified that I’m losing the poems, that they are leaching away from me. I’m not an anxious fellow, but there is one thing that always gets me anxious: when I first visit a bookstore, I go looking for the poetry section. It’s usually packed away, hidden from view, a place to dump a few spare, random books. So it requires a hunt. And every single time, as I’m hunting for the poetry section, I feel a rising tide of anxiety. What if they don’t have a poetry section? What if they don’t have any poems in this bookstore? Serious, ground-shaking anxiety grips my body and soul. And then I find the poetry section, and I can start breathing more normally.

So tonight the anxiety is back, but it’s about losing poems once memorized. I’ve made a list to assist me in my recollections. A few notes: Interestingly enough, I’ve tried to make the list of the chronological order in which I memorized the poems. I’m sure poems are missing from this list. I’ve italicized the poems I definitely no longer remember (panic sets in…)

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T. S. Eliot
Elizabeth Bishop
Pied Beauty
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Sonnet 55
William Shakespeare
Darkling Thrush
Thomas Hardy
Wind & Rain
Thomas Hardy
Lewis Carroll
The Wild Iris
Louise Gluck
The Emperor of Ice Cream
Wallace Stevens
On a Woman of Spirit
Donald Justice
Philip Levine
Hymn to the Neck
Amy Gerstler
Do Not Go Gentle
Dylan Thomas
Could This Be It?
Eamon Grennan
Not Even the Rain
ee cummings
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
W. B. Yeats
I Wake to Sleep
Theordore Roethke
The Night Plums
W. S. Merwin
In a Fog
Philip Levine
Modern Art
Charlie Smith
Samurai Song
Robert Pinsky
Full Moon
Eamon Grennan
White Water
Eamon Grennan
What We Need Is Here
Wendall Berry

Perhaps after I finish my personal jazz history I’ll do a personal memorized poem history. It is kind of interesting to me the order in which I memorized these poems — this list must carry something about how I am, maybe about my journey…

One Response to “Memorizing Poems”

  1. anne Says:

    in therapy this summer, i was talking about a man whose unknown opinion of me was a source of consternation. i got to the point of saying, ‘well, but who cares?’, and my therapist replied, ‘yeah, who made him the emperor of ice cream?’

    i guffawed, the reference was so good.

    a quote on a greeting card in the bookstore attached to the coffee shop where i’m holed up:

    “ever notice that ‘what the hell!’ always turns out to have been the right decision?”
    – attributed to ‘unknown hollywood script writer.’

    why not memorize ‘what work is’? i bet you already have it mostly down. surprised it wasn’t on your list.

    surprised that ‘hymn to the neck’ is so far up the list — i would have placed it as coming into circulation more recently, circa night plums.

    likewise, surprised that ‘the waking,’ (which you reference as ‘i wake to sleep’) is so far down the list. it was one of the principal poems on your poem typewriter back in the ‘burg.

    ‘the waking’ feeds me year after year. i once did a labyrinth, outdoors in april, and felt like it described the experience perfectly. it speaks directly to my faith life — very similar to merton’s prayer, ‘lord god, i have no idea where i am going…’

    the other poem i still remember and love from that early site is the one about eating poetry, growling in the bookish dark. was it mark strand?

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