Poetry month is over, now—but we have eleven other months to work with. At the Thayer Memorial Library through The Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative, we have read and written some memorable work, and many, many students committed poems to memory (yes, their library fines were forgiven for reciting those ten lines of good writing, but still . . . . )
This commitment to memorizing poetry might be the most important part of the month’s project. Why? Because this is one, and perhaps the best, way to pull beautiful language and the experiences of those who wrote it into our heads. And memorizing poetry not only gets good stuff into our heads, it also gives us a good way for us to get out of them. Poet Laureate Billy Collins recited Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” while he was trapped in an MRI tunnel. When the radiology technician asked him “Music or no music?” he opted for none, afraid, he said, that he “might get caught with Neil Diamond classics, or something.” For half an hour, relieved from the possibility of looping Diamond, Collins pulled Yeats out of his head. He knew the poem well, or course, so could not only recite it to himself, he could also think about it—its words silently filling the “high-tech coffin” he couldn’t move from.
As he pulled himself into the poem, the poem pulled him out of himself and his predicament. Yeats’ yearning for the Lake Isle was Collins’s; his rhythmic lines pulled themselves along; its imagery created a world somewhere else any of us would rather be. It’s a relatively short poem that nonetheless gave the tunnel-trapped poet something to think about and get lost in—not entirely unlike a mechanic reviewing schematics while he’s sitting at the dentist’s office, or a cook’s reviewing the process of making a perfect sauce while he’s standing in line at the green-grocer’s. The point, here, is that we don’t need a critical event to prompt us to silently recite beautiful language. We don’t need distress to make us want to be somewhere else. Memorizing poetry (any wonderful language, really) can transport us from where we are—the dentist’s chair or the grocery line—to a new or unusual place. Memorized poetry can take us “from Kansas to Oz,” Collins says. But, he says, it’s the trip, not the destination that changes us—think of Dorothy. Our imaginations that are working when we repeat from memory are the transportation, not the stopping places. Memorize enough poetry, and you will see this is true.
Memorizing poetry also brings us into conversation with others—that “hubbub of voices distilled by books of quotations and epigrams,” essayist Jim Holt refers to when he tells us that literary culture is that string of quotes and allusions that binds our collective reading experiences. The exercise transports us out of the MRI, dental chair, or check-out line and puts us in conversation with people far away and long ago who are still speaking to us now—it’s what professional educators refer to as “cultural literacy,”
Is memorizing difficult? No: for most of us, it’s that “little-by-little” process. It’s also a process that involves our entire bodies—the sounds, the words on the page, the feeling we get if, like Wordsworth, we can walk while we commit, especially, of course, when we commit ourselves to those highly rhythmic pieces. But this works for all poetry and for much good prose—I discovered that I had memorized the first ten lines of Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” without even knowing it—they popped out of my mouth during a classroom lecture. Repetition during the normal schemes of life.
It’s that easy. Holt discredits prevalent myths about “learning” poetry: It’s not painful—do this a few lines at a time: your brain has plenty of room—it doesn’t max out like a hard drive; and think of your brain like an iPod—fill it with the stuff you want to be part of you. After all, as writer Geoffrey O’Brian says, “We are what we quote.” I am happy to say that after reading 117 poems written by the first through twelfth graders here in Lancaster, I have a few of those lines tucked away (not wanting to privilege some poems over others, now that the contest os over, I won’t share them here). I wish those lines could push out “Pop, pop, fizz, fizz, O! What a relief it is!”—I’m working on that. But there’s room for all of it . . . .
Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative. She has been a resident of Lancaster since 1992 and teaches writing, literature, and other humanities courses at Quinsigamond Community College. Wendth holds an MFA in literature and writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. You can read her work in a variety of literary and general interest publications.