Poems by heart

One year at the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, Bob Hass gave a craft talk in which he said he had memorized his own poetry by driving around with a cassette of his poems. I’d been memorizing poems for a long time used this technique to memorize several dozen poems more (not my own, though). As a result, not only do I have a treasury of poems to get me through long lines and bad traffic, snippets of poems come to me just in the course of an ordinary day.

Walking down the street in spring, when the new leaves have just unfurled, I sometimes think of Tony Hoagland’s poem, A Color of the Sky, in which he calls the color of these leaves “the very tint of inexperience.”

As I come out of the tunnel on Highway 24 and see San Francisco gleaming white over the bay, I might think of Wordsworth’s lines:

“The city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning, silent, bare.
Ships, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open to the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

And when my granddaughter complains of boredom, I think of Berryman’s wonderful dream song that begins:

“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover, my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly), “Ever to confess you’re bored
means  you have no

Inner Resources.”

I refrain from quoting it to her, but it makes me smile.

Having an internal library of poems I love enriches my day, and will be a comfort if they every put me (like Christopher Smart) in solitary confinement. Here’s a poem about this:

Poems by Heart

The first I memorized was for Miss Underhill
in seventh grade: Frost’s woods.
Then Márgaret’s melodious grief,
like nothing I’d heard before,
like the anthem of my tribe.

I grabbed onto poetry as if
it were the round, white circle
of canvas-covered cork
thrown from the lifeguard’s chair
when they hauled me out,
and stood me on my feet,
still flailing.

The poems meant that somewhere
there had to be others like me.
They had left me a trail of words,
little candy lifesavers in rainbow colors,
and I ate them, one by one,
as I made my way
across the acres of suburban
athletic fields and sidewalks
to find them.

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