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Memorizing (and Forgetting) Poetry

October 1, 2013

The other day I went to the library and, on a lark, checked out a copy of Larry Levis’ Wrecking Crew, a 1972 collection of poems.  As I write this I’ve only finished the first section of the book, but my favorite poem so far is called “Wound”.  In just six lines Levis compares his love for his audience to the way “a man loves an old wound / picked up in a razor fight”.  It’s short and direct, and the simile instantly struck me.  Then and there, I decided to memorize it.

Considering that “Wound” has only 32 words and straightforward syntax, committing it to memory was fairly easy.  But when I was able to run through the poem several times hours after rehearsing it, it felt like an accomplishment.  I had “owned” the poem.  Not in the sense that I understand it fully, because I don’t, but in the sense that Levis’ words are now a part of me.

Memorizing poetry is a way of conversing with past works.  Reciting a work from memory, performing the words, imbues those words with a meaning that comes from you specifically.  It may not be what the poet intended, and it may in fact be “incorrect”, but it’s all part of a conversation that began when pen first hit paper.

I first became interested in memorizing poems when my high school organized a Poetry Out Loud competition.  I chose to recite John Ashbery’s “The Painter”, in part because I was envious of how well Ashbery could write a sestina.  For weeks it seemed I was living with his words, living the struggle of the artist to paint the sea’s portrait.  When I got in front of the mic and felt my right knee shaking uncontrollably, I could picture the painter in that same situation by the sea.

I still have fond memories of reciting “The Painter”, and the poem’s mood may well apply to my life.  (Coming in first that year didn’t hurt, either).  But–and here’s where the agony comes in–I can’t remember a single line of it now.

The poem I spent weeks rehearsing, the one that touched me so much as a junior in high school, just four years later, is not a piece of trivia in my autobiography.

The day I realized I couldn’t remember any of “The Painter”, it was as if I’d lost a piece of myself.  Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but hear me out.  If the act of memorizing a poem brings a piece of yourself to the words, does it not follow that forgetting those words takes that piece of yourself away?  It’s as if you’ve lost access to a significant part of your life.

I’ve had this problem with poems much shorter than “The Painter”, too.  Last week I found myself reciting “To a Young Girl” by William Butler Yeats.  I’ve played that one in my head countless times since I first heard it.  In high school I hand-wrote a copy and taped it to my bedroom wall.  It’s the reason I got into Yeats’ poetry as a whole.  And, like “Wound”, it’s short and simple.  If ever there was poem I’d never forget, it’d be this one.

And yet, by the middle of the poem, my mind went like this: “Who broke my heart for her, / When the… the… “

For the life of me I could not place the next two words.  I knew it had to end in “-ought”, because I remember it being a slant rhyme with “forgot”, but it just wasn’t coming.  (For the record, it’s “When the wild thought”).

Granted, now that I’ve shored up by hold on lines 6 and 7, I can still reel off “To a Young Girl”.  But that instant of forgetfulness made me confront the possibility that “To a Young Girl” may go the way of “The Painter”.  Maybe it no longer means as much to me as it did in high school, when I took the young girl to be my years-long crush.  (Egocentric of me, I know, but I was a teenager).

That’s one of the frustrations of memorizing poetry: the threat of forgetting a poem forces you to confront the fact that life changes.  Words that meant the world to you before are merely lines on a page today.  Our goals, priorities, affections, even just tastes: they change with time.  And the moment I forget “Wound”–which will happen, maybe even next week–those changes will become apparent.

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