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Friday, March 16, 2007

Learn a Poem

If you like poetry, you should learn a poem by heart. Or if you already know a poem by heart, learn another one.

I went to a Chinese doctor for acupuncture recently, my first experience with getting stuck with long thin needles for theraputic purposes. I wasn't scared, since I have friends who've done it and claim it doesn't hurt at all. (It actually hurt more than I expected it to, but still not much.) The only thing that was tricky was the laying still for forty minutes.

The doctor stuck me, in the feet, the legs, the wrists, the top of my head. All good. Then he said "Now you will lay still for forty minutes." His Chinese accent gave me the glimmer of hope that he had said "twenty minutes." I checked. No. "Forty minutes. And relax." Relax? I am not a naturally relaxed person. If I am going to lay remotely still for forty minutes and relax, I need to be surrounded by hot water or aided by some mind-altering chemical. Otherwise, I fidget, twitch, and itch.

So I lay there, itching and feeling the urge to writhe, wishing I'd thought to bring my Old Man's iPod. Then a thought struck me: I will recite poems in my head. There's something very satisfying to me about having a poem I love at my disposal at all times, about running its syllables and images over my tongue, or even just through my brain. So I began, starting with poems I've learned more recently: Stanley Kunitz's "Touch Me," Ted Berrigan's "Sonnet III," Ron Padgett's "Love Poem," Sylvia Plath's "Nick and the Candlestick," Poem 14 from John Berryman's The Dream Songs, Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays." Then I moved on to poems I've known for awhile longer: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Musical Instrument," Charlotte Mew's "The Farmer's Bride," Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Courage that My Mother Had," Plath's early villanelle "Mad Girl's Love Song," Countee Cullen's "Incident," Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory," a few of Shakespeare's sonnets, various of Emily Dickinson's small poems. It was lovely. It whiled away the time, and I was actually able to relax, no itches. But eventually I ran out. The doctor came in for his every-so-often check, telling me that I had five minutes left. But no poems left.

Then I remembered. It was maybe the first poem I ever memorized, with my dad when I was nine or ten. "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service. A long poem. A five minute poem, easy. I was set.

Given that I'm teaching a poetry class this semester, and that I've assigned my students to memorize a poem to recite for the class, the timing couldn't have been better. It was a great anecdote to share with them the next day. And based on the reactions on a few faces, I think it may have convinced some students who weren't already sold on the value of memorizing poetry.

Of course, they would have all brought their iPods. But still.

9 Comments:

Blogger Feral Mom said...

Dude, I SALUTE you for holding still for 40 minutes, especially since you are usually, to quote Paul Simon "twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun." In a good way, of course. Now I must go memorize some poems--all I know by heart is Andrew Dice Clay.

see you tomorrow!

7:17 PM  
Blogger Esereth said...

"The Cremation of Sam McGee." That's the only one I recognized. I remember that one. "Strange things are done in the land of the midnight sun," is that right? I loved that one in Jr. High.

One of my professors tried to get us to memorize poems. She cited people trapped in concentration camps as a motivation, how sometimes the only thing you can take with you is what is inside you.

11:11 AM  
Blogger DoctorMama said...

The only poem I've ever memorized was in German -- I think Rilke:

Pfauenfeder:
In deiner Feinheit sondergleichen
Wie liebte ich dich schon als Kind ...

or something like that. 40 minutes? No way in hell.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I had a similar experience when I had an MRI - where I had to lie still in a tube for what felt like forever. I recited Shakespeare in my head, and it worked like a charm.

6:09 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Excellent, Elizabeth. And in an MRI I'll bet you don't even have the option of bringing your iPod.

Esereth, the concentration camp is also a compelling example, though a bit grim. But it's true: there are some things they can't take away from you.

DoctorMama, I also have a theory that it's good for you to learn poems in other languages. I know a couple, one in French and one in Spanish, though they're pretty rusty right now. I should brush up on those.

Thanks, Feral Mom. I must admit I was proud of myself for my stillness. (And I had a great time at the Irish Bitch Fest today. But all day I've had the Pogues in my head - "Ye scumbag, ye maggot, ye cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas yer arse, I thank God it's our last...")

8:40 PM  
Blogger Kablammie said...

Great post!

The first poem I ever learned by heart was "The Eagle" by Tennyson. I still know it. My 7th grade English teacher had us memorize and recite a poem a week for extra credit. Most of the kids hated it. I pretended to hate it too, but secretly I thought it was fun.

I'm impressed you know "The Farmer's Bride" by heart. That's a long poem! "The Eagle" is only six lines.

10:15 AM  
Blogger sweatpantsmom said...

Sadly, I have no poems memorized. But I do have the theme song to 'Scooby Doo.' Does that count?

12:48 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Francis Scott Key wrote the theme song for "Scooby Doo," right? So that's got to count.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Denise said...

Memorizing and reciting poems is such a great way to get into poetry. My freshman seminar prof made us do that the first week of freshman year. I memorized "John Anderson, My Jo'" and "To an Athlete Dying Young." I ended up becoming and English major and English teacher and made all my students do it too.

10:29 AM  

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