Although I’ve forgotten a lot about my high school years, I do recall a fear of poetry, and letting my eyes roam around the room or stare at my book while I mentally begged the teacher not to call on me in class.
Yet if I really was so scared, why did I torture myself by enrolling in an English Literature class at the University of South Florida as a young adult? This makes it all the more remarkable that now, fifty years later, I’m saying an infinite yes to poetry—and that I’m memorizing poems. By choice. It’s a road not taken by many, and though way has led on to way, I’ve been able to return to it thanks to the daring editors over at Tweetspeak Poetry.
In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer suggests that “To really learn a text, one had to memorize it.” And as the early-eighteenth-century Dutch poet Jan Luyken put it, “One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax / Is worth a thousand in the stacks.”
Is one poem memorized worth a thousand on my shelf? Could I possibly memorize a thousand poems? Probably not unless I channel Peter of Ravenna who, according to Foer, claimed to have memorized “twenty thousand legal points, a thousand texts by Ovid, two hundred of Cicero’s speeches and sayings, three hundred sayings of philosophers, seven thousand texts from Scripture, as well as a host of other classical works.”
When I started memorizing T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song J. Alfred Prufock, who could have known that path would bend into a vibrant wood trembling with poems of every color just waiting to impress themselves into my heart’s wax?
I’ve got more to say about this here.