When I commit a poem to memory, I inhabit it. I’m a rapid-fire reader and that doesn’t sit well with a poem. To learn it by heart means that I give full measure to every word. I make it part of my breath. I find different tones and moods in which to present it. I become as close to the poet as it is possible to be. I want to call her and ask why did you use this word and not that one? I want to tell him what his words have become in my life.
And once I learn it, if I try to read the next line through my mind’s eye before I’ve finished reciting the one that is emerging at the moment, I lose the whole damn thing. Speed is not my friend when I come to a poem, I’ve discovered, and that is a revelation to someone who believes rapidity means skill.
Some poems that I loved when I was much younger refuse to stay with me. I loved ee cummings’ Uncle Sol who was a born failure until I tried to learn it. It infuriated me; even as a monologue, it didn’t work for me—much less a poem. “That is or to wit,” made me scream “Satirizing bad language doesn’t make a poem.” What delighted me at sixteen no longer works at sixty-six, and why should I be surprised? I couldn’t keep his jumbled syntax and bad story-telling in place where I wanted it and then I realized I simply didn’t want to.
Is that a clue to what we forget? Do undiseased memories deliberately jettison what is no longer resonant, as well as what’s no longer useful? Do they become over-stuffed and make deliberate choices—“lose what I lose to keep what I can keep”?
I tell myself that I’m losing minutia—who cares what my previous telephone number used to be? When I rummage around my memory, I’m really appalled at the unusable information that lives there. The name of my sixth-grade teacher’s adopted son, really? With all of the little details floating around my brain, no wonder a movie title or two eludes total recall. I only wish I could choose where to hit that delete button, what leaves the recycling bin forever.
But even more interesting to me is what chooses to stick around now, and how that happens. Every day I put two to four lines in my head by writing them down and repeating them over and over. Some are as if I’ve always known them; others twist away repeatedly before they become part of a whole, learned poem. I’ve found that if the poet is writing about something I avoid keeping in mind, like death or stability, I’m resistant to having it part of my memory. Eventually it comes, but those lines take work. So does idiosyncratic syntax, which I edit to my satisfaction. “Consumed with that which it was nourished by” took a couple of days to be accepted without change.
On the other hand, W.H. Auden’s poem, The Walking Tour is going down a treat—imagine that.