I have a confession. Despite being a barista, amateur photographer, and English major, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. There are poets and poems that I love. However, for a broad swath of the canon, my mind often wanders from the lack of clarity and straightforwardness that are characteristic of plot-driven prose. While I understand these formalistic qualities are inherent to poetry, I’m wary of stuff that makes me feel stupid. For a paper in my American Literature class, we had to memorize 20 lines of poetry from one of our readings and write an analysis of the passage based on the memorization process. For this first effort, I chose a grim poem to “take by heart”: “Old War-Dreams” by Walt Whitman, which centers on a veteran’s recollections of battle.
In the absence of a Sherlockian “memory palace” to support my effort (despite competing in college-level quizbowl, the most my mind can construct is a tiny shack), I went on a “memory march.” Armed with a mechanical pencil and a wrinkled paper-copy of “Old War-Dreams,” I paced around my suite’s dim common room deconstructing each line of the poem, at first word-by-word, then phrase-by-phrase. With each chunk, my left arm moved in an arc like a human metronome. Reversing the process and piecing these fragments together again like a daisy chain of words, I could eventually recite the entire poem—the effort proved less taxing than expected. In fact, notwithstanding the poem’s content of grief, guilt, and trauma, I found memorizing “Old War-Dreams” to be strangely calming. My memorization of Whitman’s verse and the tranquility it created made me reconsider my “anti-poetryness.” Could learning to recite poems have a therapeutic effect, or at least bring some form of inner peace?
I decided to test this theory by memorizing other poems throughout the week. While originally planned as a daily routine, a profound laziness that settled in my soul on Friday made me cut the number of poems down to 4 ⅓. After collecting recommendations, I selected a few poems of decent size that I could handle (which is to say without Old English/Shakespearean verse): “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, “Infant Sorrow” by William Blake, “Danse Russe” by William Carlos Williams (lots of Williams on this list… not intentional I swear!), and a third of “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (if you count the refrains throughout). At sporadic moments during breakfast or sitting at Cross Campus, I would pull out my phone and begin the recitation. While I often pursued this diversion instead of (ironically) working on my English paper, it greatly expanded my appreciation for poems that I had previously overlooked: “Danse Russe,” a poem that I skimmed over a few years ago, has now become one of my favorites.
A New Yorker article by Brad Leithauser, “Why We Should Memorize,” posits that memorizing poems takes them “inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level.” I feel as though that’s already the case with Bishop’s “One Art,” though I haven’t memorized it fully. In spite of what the poem says, “the art of losing” and my involuntary mastery of it brings me mental agony: regrets on time wasted worrying (which causes me even more worry!), a fruitless infatuation, that one time in sixth grade when a kindergartener defeated me at a simplified game of checkers. Yet, instead of focusing on those frustrations, I can simply slow down by taking the time to memorize another poem.
Therefore, I found that, rather than poetry itself, the act of dedicating my entire mind to something other than my usual anxieties provided a much-needed peace of mind. However, since my mind is sluggish 97% of the time, it will be hard to keep this habit up. I wrote this piece around a month ago and have not memorized any more poems since then. I’m hoping you, the reader, will be inspired.Still, I like to think that this new routine, if I continue it, may save my life. For example, it could be propitious if I ever find myself stuck in a Saw-like trap and can only get out by reciting “The Second Coming” with at least 90% accuracy (a crossover with Dead Poets Society; Dead Poets Saw-ciety). Or, it can simply be the perfectly pretentious party trick.