By heart: why we should memorise poetry.

From Mindful

Easter 2019, I took my rather large volume of Mary Oliver poems to Cornwall with the intention of committing one to memory.

I had been inspired by an article written by Nicholas Pearson, then publishing director of 4th Estate. I kept this article for years. He had memorised T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (433 lines!!) for his 50th birthday:

‘The poem changed me…I do believe great poetry has the ability to enhance your relationship with the world…’ (Nicholas Pearson)

I have always loved poetry and wrote copious amounts of it at Primary School. In fact, there was a group of us – I would think of it, someone else would write it down and we would all perform it. At home, I wrote poems as apologies, poems to demonstrate love and to make sense of the world.

I was a quiet child, my thoughts and feelings too big for my vocabulary. I couldn’t find the words to say but poetry presented a different way to communicate.

My sister-in-law introduced me to Mary Oliver by sharing the recital of Wild Geese on WhatsApp:

Already a Ted Hughes fan, I loved the way Oliver wrote about nature and when she died, I enjoyed how others connected with her poems and the broader engagement which her death brought with her writing.

My copy of Devotions arrived and it sat around the house for a while. It seemed I was always too busy to pick it up, perhaps my mind was too busy.

It can feel intimidating to hold a large volume of poetry, where to begin? Collections of poems are not to be read cover to cover like a novel but discovered and savoured (like wild strawberries).

I took the book on holiday to Cornwall. I flicked through: back to front, front to back; eyes moving up and down the titles. I had read and enjoyed ‘Why I wake early’ and decided to focus on that section, quickly settling on Mindful.

It spoke to me, I decided to memorise it.

It is not an overly long poem but enjambment is used and there is no rhyming scheme to help fix it in memory.

I studied the poem and attempted to recite it aloud, one verse at a time. At first, the family were mildly interested. Discussing language choices: ‘like a needle in the haystack of light’, helped me to remember them but the family quickly grew bored.

Learning a poem by heart is ultimately a solitary pursuit – it inhabits your mind and body – a secret ritualistic chant. It made me unavailable at times; whilst from the outside appearing unoccupied – preoccupied.

The parts of the poem I misremembered were of the greatest interest to me. At first, ‘kills me with delight’ was remembered at ‘fills me with delight’, ‘leaving me’ instead of ‘that leaves me’, ‘a haystack’ instead of ‘the haystack. The use of the definite article is powerful. The use of ‘kills’ is devastating.

It felt disrespectful to misremember even the smallest word when the poet had chosen them so carefully- it led me to consider the importance and impact of EVERY word choice made by a writer.

I remembered well those sections in which a particular phrase resonated:

‘To lose myself inside this soft world’

or a vocabulary choice or metaphor intrigued me:

‘The untrimmable light of the world’

I connected strongly with the overall theme of the poem – pleasure, worship in the small wonders of nature, the glory of something as common as grass – and in this time of lockdown my gratitude for the beauty of nature and of poetry has grown. The poem is part of me now.

‘prayers that are made out of grass’

Mindful, Mary Oliver

From Devotions
Devotions, New York, Penguin Press (2017)

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