I went to school in the days when teachers often had us memorize and recite poetry. It was an exercise I always enjoyed. I often worked on memorizing text — poems, the Gettysburg Address, JFK's Inaugural Address — while walking over to my best friend's house in high school. It was a long walk!
Years later, when I was an editorial writer, my boss sometimes began edits and opinion columns with poetry. That habit spurred me to keep an anthology of poetry at my desk. I would read it when I could not think of how I wanted to begin whatever I was writing or just need a break from my own words crowding my head. It got me used to reading and enjoying poetry as something that was part of my daily life rather than an elite and rare endeavor.
I've never gotten into using my phone or whatever to listen to music, books or podcasts while walking at the gym. Instead I use the time to learn poems. I print them out on paper which I fold up and put in my pocket. I take it out and look at a line or two and then keep reciting it as I walk. I recite out loud, though not loudly. You learn better that way and you can put some oomph into how you declaim. I figure if anybody notices me talking to myself, they may see I am holding a piece of paper and realize I am practicing something — perhaps my speech for a major award!
One day, a woman asked me what I was doing. When I told her I was memorizing poetry, we had a long talk on the subject. From then on she would check on what I was learning and we would talk poetry. Most people don't bother with poetry which made me wonder about Sandy Stark (above) and her interest in the subject. So I "googled" her and discovered she was a published poet! I immediately went looking for her books: The Toolbox Poems and Counting on Birds. Found them at Mystery To Me Bookstore on Monroe St. where I bought them, brought them home and dove in.
Given that Sandy is a Midwesterner, birder, prairie enthusiast and woman of a certain age, almost every subject she addressed in her poems resonated with me. Her work displays a keen eye and ear and an ability to engage with the world at both its most amusing and deeply poignant moments. I've kept these poems on the table next to my reading chair so I can delve into them at random. Not when I need a break from life, but as a way to engage more deeply with it. How wonderful to discover a poet in the last place where I'd have gone looking for one.
You can order Sandy's book from your local independent bookstore as well as on Amazon.
I've memorized poems that have resonated with me in the past as well as some I've recently discovered. In the midst of struggling to learn Tennyson's "Ulysses," it occurred to me that song lyrics qualified as poetry so I took a break and memorized a couple of tunes. Here's what I've learned so far:
To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell, 1681
End of Summer, Stanley Kunitz, 1953
Postscript, Seamus Heaney, 1996
Last Before America, Louis MacNiece, 1940s
Three from Shakespeare:
O Mistress Mine (one of Feste's songs from "Twelfth Night"),
Prologue from "Romeo and Juliet,"
Fear No More the Heat of the Sun (a song from "Cymbeline")
You're the Top, lyrics by Cole Porter, 1934
The Parting Glass, Scottish traditional song
If you have a favorite poem that you think is worth committing to memory, do put its title and author in a comment and I will consider adding it to my repertoire.