I wrote this at the end of October. It’s now almost the end of November. In this month’s worth of days, I learned that May Sarton poem and it was painful, tortuous work. Like any muscle, memory resists reuse. Still I wrote it and rewrote it as I learned more lines. I bought a notebook and copied what I had tried to paste into my mind every day. Slowly the words began to stick.
Some of them were easy to assimilate into my life, They spoke to me : “Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep.” Others were resistant: “And treelike, stand unmoved before the change,” and “the strong root still alive under the snow.” I began to understand that although I admire trees, I have never wanted to be like one, stolid, wooden, and passive.
I’ve always approached poetry impressionistically, reading it quickly for the feelings that I found there. Learning this sonnet by heart made me realize how carefully chosen were the words that I fought to remember. Punctuation was intentional, not governed by laws of grammar. As I internalized May Sarton’s poem, I began to understand why many poets abandoned strict form. Would she have chosen her last line if she hadn’t needed it? “Love will endure—if I can let you go” seems hackneyed after “Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit would not distemper the great lucid skies.” And yet would she have chosen skies if not for the need to rhyme with “If I can take the dark with open eyes”, and why “the” uncertain fruit rather than “its”—these questions wouldn’t nag at me if I didn’t find myself wanting to remember words other than those the poet wrote. It was as though I was eager to rewrite the poem in my own way and I had to slap myself away from doing that.
This poem had been given to me by someone else. Learning it was a response to the aptness of Sarton’s words to my facing the losses of old age. When it was finally in my heart and memory, I decided to turn to poems that have echoed within me in fragments over a period of years. Would it be easier to commit these to memory, and how much pleasure would there be in having these poems in their entirety, to pull out whenever I wanted? Would my memory overflow with words and refuse to take in more at a certain point? As it grew stronger, would it begin to once more retain those niggly little details that humiliated me when they refused to come when they were called for in conversations?
Movie titles were the worst offenders; my favorite movies lost their names when I talked about them. At dinner one night recently, I mentioned Pulp Fiction in connection with the song, Stuck in the Middle with You. The man I was speaking was puzzled and on my other side I heard my youngest son mutter “Reservoir Dogs.” A week before he had supplied Infernal Affairs when I blanked out that name in mid-sentence. Alzheimer’s always looms before me as a threat when this happens, but would I be able to learn poems if I were pre-Alzheimer’s? And would learning them stop this small but chagrin-filled dissolution of memory?
So I began this undertaking, prompted by greed and fear and hunger, storing up poetry to have with me anytime I wished, hoping to stave off forgetfulness—or even worse, removal of all memory.