Monday morning I took George Eliott on a walk with me on the beach here at Seagrove. Yes, I know that she died in 1880. But her poetry lives forever. And I hope that some of its “shelf life” will include a tiny space in the subconscious of my brain, after my efforts at memorizing her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible.” My favorite lines:
May I reach that purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony….
And then, on Tuesday morning, I had coffee with Emily Dickinson. It was too stormy to walk on the beach, so we snuggled on the couch and read aloud, “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” First the entire poem. (It’s short—only three stanzas.) And then two lines at a time, over and over until they began to stick in my memory.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
Later, when the storm abated, I was able to take Emily down to the sea where I found it was much easier to file her words away in my memory. Maybe it was the rhythm of the waves and of my own feet as I walked and recited the poem. It reminded me of the years, back in the 1980s, when I taught aerobic dancing. Whenever I hear those old songs, the steps I choreographed for my students seem embedded in my muscle memory and I find myself going one-two-three, kick, back, two, three, clap, whenever Lionel Richie croons out, “Oh, what a feeling, when we’re dancing on the ceiling!”
Last weekend during the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, the poet and writer, Beth Ann Fennelly, encouraged us all to memorize poetry as part of our preparation for our work as writers. I remember reading an article about a year and a half ago in the New York Times Magazine, “Got Poetry,” which was about memorizing poetry. I even did a blog post about it in April of 2009.
And so I’m taking Beth Ann’s encouragement seriously. For the next 100 days, I’m going to try to memorize a poem daily. Well, I might only do this on weekdays—we’ll see how it goes. I’m intrigued to discover how it will affect me on several levels—my writing, my psychological/emotional/spiritual life, and even my physical well-being. And yes, I’ll be writing about it, so watch for posts here every now and then.
And please leave me a comment—about your favorite poems to memorize, any experience you’ve had with this activity, or just anything at all about poetry. I always love to hear from you!