Memorizing Poetry: Tributes and Memories

May 6, 2018

Carl Little and Memorizing Poems

Carl Little

I have served as the accuracy judge for Maine’s Poetry Out Loud competition on several occasions (not this year—the snow derailed my plans). Each time I hear those brave high schoolers present the work of Tony Hoagland, Linda Pastan, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and other great poets past and present, I am reminded of my own experiences with memorizing poetry—memories that are a mix of pleasure and pure fear.

My first recollection of learning verse goes back to elementary school in New York City in the 1960s. Every summer each student in the three senior classes (sixth, seventh and eighth grades) at the Buckley School was required to learn by heart several poems to be recited in the classroom upon returning to school in the fall, an obligation that put a small but significant damper on end-of-summer fun.

Just like the Poetry Out Loud contestants, we were given a group of poems from which to choose. Among my selections were “The Congo” by Vachel Lindsay and “On His Blindness” by John Milton. The latter I can still recite by heart. I loved the music of his words—“When I consider how my light is spent,” is the opening line—but also finding out that Milton went blind later in his life, which deepened my appreciation of this poem, so abstract yet so personal.

Flash forward to 1976. I had graduated from Dartmouth, moved back to New York City, and, as an English major, was desperate for some kind of employment. I took a job as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was posted to the Lehman Wing, on the Central Park side of the museum, a somewhat remote section of the sprawling complex.

To pass the time guarding Rembrandt’s portrait of the syphilitic art theorist Gerard de Lairesse and other art works, I decided to memorize poems, among them, William Carlos Williams’ delightful “Danse Russe,” in which the speaker dances naked before a mirror, asking “Who shall say I am not/the happy genius of my household?” Years later, a Mount Desert Island acquaintance, photographer Linn Sage, recounted how one day she came into one of the Lehman galleries and caught me practicing that poem.

A few years later, enrolled in Columbia’s MFA writing program, I took Derek Walcott’s “The English Pentameter Tradition” class. The West Indies-born poet, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, had all of us memorize poems by Robert Frost and Edward Thomas.

Walcott loved both poets dearly and highlighted their connection: when Frost moved to England with his family in 1912, the 40-year-old poet was looking for a fresh literary start to a career that had stalled in America. He met and became close friends with Thomas, a critic and budding poet. Frost found a London publisher for his first book, North of Boston, now considered a masterpiece of American literature. Thomas’s favorable appraisal of the collection—he called it “one of the most revolutionary books of modern times”—helped launch his newfound friend’s career. Interesting to note that Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” led Thomas to enlist in the British Army. He died in World War I.

Most of us in Walcott’s class were in our 20s and we were collectively petrified by his assignment, but after weak protestation, we gave in. I can’t recall what I memorized for Frost—maybe “Raking Leaves,” which my son James later learned by heart in elementary school—but for Thomas it was his poem “Rain.”Certain lines still ring in my head: “Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon.”

Martin Steingesser

The only Maine poet I know who presents his work from memory is the inimitable Martin Steingesser. At the second annual celebration of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s birthday at the Farnsworth Museum this past February 24th, he recited by heart one of her most famous poems, the sonnet “What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why.” It was, indeed, “by heart” that Steingesser gave us Millay’s bittersweet lines. “I cannot say what loves have come and gone”—nor could we.

I have given many readings of my own verse, but never presented it without the words in front of me. Inspired by those high school students and Steingesser, and wanting to be able to impress my grandchildren, who seem to be able to memorize a book after a single reading, I have decided to embark on memorization. I’m starting with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats. Take a deep breath, Carl. Ready?  “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.”

Thank you to Carl Little, Communications Manager, Maine Community Foundation, for providing this blog post. Carl is also a poet.


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