Poetry as Necessity- Is that a Poem in Your Pocket?

poem in your pocket

poem in your pocket

When April descends, it brings with it National Poetry month. I love the idea of a month entirely dedicated to poetry as it seems we turn to poetry in the best of times and the worst of times. I have a hunch it can belong in the in-between times too. With poetry, we all have to start somewhere.

The unexpected and tragic can happen at any time. Monday brought a bit of unfolding horror as news reports began flooding the internet and snippets of newslike material took over twitter. I poked my head into twitter a few times on Monday and observed the human condition at work as I grieved hearing details of those injured, slain and those at the end of their race forced to stop.

It reminded me why we turn to poetry.

Yesterday a friend posted in the same status update on Facebook that her cousin had taken his life and she took solace in a poem. We need poetry for the unexpected moments that life sometimes lets come our way, for when we feel felled and irrevocably broken. We need its words to help build us up again, to remind us of the possibility of tomorrow or the certainty of yesterday. The spoken music of the line tethers us to something sturdy when we feel weightless.

Another friend on Facebook announced that in the week where all eyes are on Boston because of the bombing, she brought her firstborn son into the world… in Boston. This too could be conveyed in poetry- the grappling with the so very wrong with the so very good at the same time.

The Academy of American Poets instituted their “Poem in Your Pocket Day” ,  as a way to bring poetry into the everyday. Every April 18, the idea is simple:  you carry around a poem in your pocket to share and read to co-workers, friends or family who you encounter on that day. Poetry becomes woven into a simple Thursday, transforming it into a rite of passage.

I would charge that memorizing a poem, letting it come closer than crumpled paper in a pocket, is an act worthy of any bucket list. When the hard time comes, when the unbelievably good times come, the poem is there, just at the cusp of memory to act as balm or exultation.

If you’ve never attempted to commit a poem, dialogue of a play, song lyrics or any words to memory, it can seem awfully daunting. Like most things worth their mettle, the difficulty is hard won in the words being conjured up just when you need them. I think of memorization as an investment that my future self will reap when the time is ripe for the words to flourish from memory.

Below are a few steps to help you start thinking through poetry memorization. Do you have tips to share for memorization or a poem that’s been meaningful to you?

STEP 1: Select Your Poem to Memorize.
Are you a fan of music? How about food? It can be difficult to find the right poem you decide to commit to memory until you find it. I find often, I will stumble upon something so beautiful, so hopeful, so heartbreaking or true that I need to have it closer to me than in the book in which I originally discovered it. Be patient. Consider poets’ work you enjoyed in school (or now). Here are a few suggested poems of different lengths:

“Fall” by Wendell Berry
“To a Poor Old Woman” by William Carlos Williams

– “254” by Emily Dickinson
Absent One” by Sharon Olds

– “The Guitar” by Lorca
“Music Swims Back to Me” by Anne Sexton

– “The Panther” by Rilke
– “Sailing” by Henrik Nordbrandt

“Hustlers with Bad Timing” by D.A. Powell
“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon
“I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark not Day” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Psalm 23

– “Homage to My Hips” by Lucille Clifton
– “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” by Galway Kinnell

– “Biscuit” by Jane Kenyon
“Tenebrae” by Paul Celan

STEP 2: Get a Memorization Game Plan.
Memorizing can be a challenging mental exercise to test your mind’s acuity. Set a poem to a popular music tune or work on hacking it up to memorize line by line. There are different strategies for memorizing a poem. One I like to employ is finding the poem’s inner music and repeating it over and over. You’ll find this practice can be good even when taking jaunts around the neighborhood. 

STEP 3: Pick Your People.
Is there anyone you can think of who might appreciate the poem in your pocket? Reading the poem aloud or reciting it with the poem nearby just in case is a good mental exercise and departure from the everyday. Also, sharing it with attribution on social media is another way to send it out into the world.



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