I was walking down the sidewalk the other day, talking to myself, when I heard a person come up behind me, making the kind of polite noises that a person makes so as not to startle the person ahead into doing something violent. It was a young coworker. We smiled and chatted and I explained that I wasn't really talking to myself, I was trying to memorize a poem.
"Oh," she said. There was a pause. And then we talked some more and she said that she wondered if memorizing poetry was some kind of generational thing. She's in her 20s, I'm in my 50s. Her teachers never asked her to memorize poetry, she says, and now she kind of wishes one of them had.
Actually, I don't remember teachers making me memorize much poetry: the "Gettysburg Address," yes. Oh, and the start of the Canterbury Tales prologue: "Whan that Aprill," etc. I just seemed to have done it along the way, without really noticing.
I fell in love with poetry when I was in my early teens, wandering through the woods chanting "To be or not to be" and reveling in my soulful nature. The poetry said what I wanted to say better than I could say it for myself, although Lord knows I tried, up late at night pounding away at my Underwood typewriter. I didn't particularly try to memorize things back then; they seemed to come naturally, favorite bits and pieces lodging in my brain, fragments that I clung to like floating spars whenever my emotional ship was in heavy seas and about to go down.
Much of it was love poetry. I doubt that I particularly impressed my boyfriend when I quoted e.e. cummings, "wholly to be a fool / while Spring is in the world my blood approves / and kisses are a better fate / than wisdom." But the words certainly made it clear that I was in the mood for some kissing, so I guess it worked out all right for all concerned. And how handy it would prove to know a few of Edna St. Vincent Millay's heartbroken but witty sonnets.
Why should a person memorize poetry? Well, for one thing, you never know when you'll be kidnapped by wicked extremists and kept blindfolded in a cave or a basement or a Fox newsroom somewhere for days on end. Should that happen, one wants to have more inside one's head than, say, the complete theme song to Gilligan's Island.
But the real reason is that, when you know a poem by heart, it belongs to you: Whenever you recite that poem, even silently during a sleepless night, you can taste the words inside your mouth. Plus, it efficiently weeds out the fainthearted among one's friends -- the ones who slip out the side door when you're on your second glass of wine and declaiming Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill."
And poetry is an excellent form of analgesia -- no side effects and no prescription needed. I had my lower back rebuilt a few years ago and it took me months to learn how to walk again -- pushing a walker down my small town's root-rumpled sidewalks, then graduating to two forearm crutches, and then to one. ("Four arm crutches?" I asked my physical therapist in bewilderment. "But I only have two arms!") It was tiresome and uncomfortable work. Still is, on occasion.
So I turned to poetry, because the act of memorizing requires so much of one's attention, and because the sense of accomplishment is such a distracting joy. I can no longer play Ultimate Frisbee, but should you ever need someone to spout Tennyson's "Ulysses," well, I stand before you: "One equal temper of heroic hearts / Made weak by time and fate but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
I realize, though, that I have become a living anachronism. Simply reading poetry in actual books is considered eccentric these days; how much odder memorizing it must seem. But poetry is a refusal to be ordinary or confined. When I recite a beloved poem, I step outside myself; I join hands with the author and with all readers and become much more than I am. No Internet connection is required; just me, and my love for language.
So if you see someone like me wobbling down the street, talking to herself, don't be alarmed, even if she doesn't have the requisite cellphone or iPod plugged into her ears. There are other ways to store memory besides a CD-ROM.
Diane Sylvain is an illustrator and copy editor for High Country News in Paonia, Colorado.