I began memorising poems a few years ago and then got out of the habit, partly because I started learning French, partly because the little terrier became too old for a poem-learning length walk and then because I went overseas for five months.
I decided I’d go back to it – not as a New Year Resolution, but because I missed it.
I started back re-learning a couple of the ones I’d already learnt – it kicked my brain back into gear.
So far I’ve memorised:
‘The Nomad Flute’, W. S Merwin
‘The Cloths of Heaven’, W. B Yeats
‘Poem for a Hard Time’, Lorna Crozier
‘When My Father Lived on Earth’, Lorna Crozier
and I’m about to learn ‘Dans Mon Souvenir Je Vois…‘ by Henri Thomas
It’s such a joy to memorise poems – you hear exactly what works and what doesn’t quite. You get a sense of why a poet chose a particular word rather than another. Each word needs to be remembered accurately and that makes you think of each word and it’s placement on the page. Line breaks and stanza breaks regain their significance. You sense other poems behind the poem as it stands. As Mary Kinzie says:
‘Any poem is best imagined as provisional. Even if it does leap already formed and completed from the poet’s imagination, that leap rises from something precarious. Most of the poetry that interests me is not closed-off, polished down, or predictable from it’s very first word. Even after a poem has hardened into print, it may continue to represent a risk, a chance, a surmise, or a hypothesis about itself. This quality of hypothesis and provisionality takes shape against the background of all other poems that make a new one possible – poems by others perceived by those writers who commit themselves to reading and by readers who strive to learn what it means to write as forming a tradition or literary inheritance.’
— Mary Kinzie, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry.