One of the most striking tiny details in Madeleine L’Engle’s bracing and beautiful memoir, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, is L’Engle’s habit of swimming for half an hour before breakfast while internally reciting an “alphabet” of verses:
The movement of the body through water helps mind and heart to work together . . . It is a good way of timing my swimming and by holding on to the great affirmations of the Psalms, of Coverdale and Cranmer, of John Donne and Henry Vaughan and Thomas Browne, I am sustained by the deep rhythm of their faith (169).
As she swam, L’Engle deliberately chose some of the words that would become part of her and would sustain her during the months her husband was dying of bladder cancer.
Slicing through a watery expanse. Sustained. Mind sharing cardiac rhythms. This is how many advocates of memorizing poetry describe their pursuit. “Between the covers of any decent anthology,” writes Jim Holt, whose mental anthology spans from Chaucer to present, “you have an entire sea to swim in.” Essayist Emily Gould speaks of “allowing the singsong of iambic pentameter to regulate my heartbeats.” More starkly, poet Mary Karr writes, “In memorizing the poems I loved, I ‘ate’ them . . . I breathed as the poet breathed to recite the words: someone else’s suffering and passion enters your body to transform you.”
In memorizing poetry, the words enter through eye or ear and become so intimate they are almost part of your cells. And the incredible thing is, when memorizing poetry, you get to choose which words become part of you.
How often does that get to happen?
Most of the words pinging around my brain got there by accident. There’s a Snack for That . . . If You’ve Been Seriously Injured . . . Can You Hear Me Now? . . . Everywhere You Look, There’s a Heart, There’s a Heart, There’s a Hand to Hold on To . . . These words have become like static that obscures words and meanings instead of enhancing them. Reading, and getting deliberately-chosen words into my head, is a way of reclaiming parts of my mind. A memorized line snaps me to attention, and then quiets me as I give the line my undivided thoughts. It’s a way of decluttering.
Each line of a poem is a mystery, a puzzle for the mind to solve. Good poems are mysteries so absorbing that only by carrying them around with me does the mystery begin to make sense. They give rest from the petty or profound life problems that often knot my brain, offering exuberant mysteries and calming rhythms. On the other hand, when the static foists itself to the fore, the only puzzle it gives me is “How’m I gonna get enough money to buy that?”
When lines of poems grab my thoughts, they make the world in front of me seem a little more graceful. It’s kind of like the thread of my thought doubles — something else, something good, a companion’s reminder, entwines my simple observation.
But, OK. Before my praises of poetry memorization get too lofty, I should let you know how much I suck at it.
When I was young, I was — like most kids — a walking tape recorder. My parents took care that the words that became part of me would be positive and poetic. I had awful dreams of rats and tarantulas (that, in hindsight, make me think that if those were my worst fears I had a pretty easy childhood). I’d wake up panting and see yellow teeth in the street lights’ variegated shadows and a hairy thorax in the ceiling’s cracks. My mother comforted me by helping me memorize Psalm 121, “He who watches over you will not slumber” and Psalm 139, “The darkness is not dark to You, but the night shines as the day.” Like L’Engle, she organized an alphabet of verses I could say to myself.
My memorization skills skedaddled long ago. Memorizing poetry or Scripture seems to require a silent soul, undivided attention, and love of repetition only possible as a child, when things like swinging back and forth for an hour are legitimate pursuits.
Last year, though, that detail in L’Engle’s memoir inspired me to try memorizing again.
So I tried to force-feed myself poetry, one small bite at a time. It was a crashing failure. Learning one small part at a time left things too disjointed. I couldn’t remember how it all worked together. So I gave up. Memorizing poetry was not for me. Not anymore. Face it: My brain just didn’t work that way these days.
But a funny thing happened this spring. I began to notice I was thinking poetry again. The words that were part of me were words that I welcomed.
I would walk in the woods and pass a beech tree. Its bark was smooth silver, its roots plunged into neon moss. And what came to mind was Wendell Berry’s Its roots passing lordly through the Earth.
Or, I would look out past the pond at my parents’ house, and the leaves of the early spring woods would be so thin that light behind them made them glow gold, and I would think sometimes of Frost’s Nature’s first green is gold / her hardest hue to hold (which of course came to me by way of The Outsiders) and sometimes of Berry’s The woods is shining this morning, delighted that he calls it simply the woods, like my siblings and I always called it, instead of the formidably poetic “Forest.”
Or, I’d be cutting up a bony chicken, and what would come to mind but Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”? Their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, which I heard Thomas read aloud on the audio anthology Poetry on Record.
Or, when I’d wake up feeling tumultuous during a year of indecision, lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s desolate sonnets would rise: Call off thoughts awhile . . . leave comfort root-room . . .
Or, I’d hear mourning doves murmur bleakly and mockingbirds recite and think of lines of Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount that compassionate birds’ temporal nesting. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself . . .
The thing is, I’d given up trying to memorize poetry, but I still read it. I taught a poetry unit last year and had students read Donne, Hopkins, Levertov, Milosz, Walcott, Berry, and two Herberts (George and Zbigniew) aloud. I had to read these poems over and over to offer any intelligent comment on them. And in just reading them over and over and again, their phrasing and patterns and rhythms did work the transformation that Holt, Gould, L’Engle, and Karr spoke of.
I won’t force-feed myself spoonfuls of poetry anymore. But I will keep reading poems and Scripture, over and over again ’til the mystery’s in my marrow.