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Poetry

Poetry as Necessity- Is that a 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:

WHEN YOU FEEL HUNGRY
“Fall” by Wendell Berry
“To a Poor Old Woman” by William Carlos Williams

WHEN YOU FEEL HOPEFUL
– “254” by Emily Dickinson
Absent One” by Sharon Olds

WHEN YOU FEEL MUSICAL
– “The Guitar” by Lorca
“Music Swims Back to Me” by Anne Sexton

WHEN YOU FEEL STUCK
– “The Panther” by Rilke
– “Sailing” by Henrik Nordbrandt

WHEN YOU GRIEVE
“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

WHEN YOU’RE IN LOVE
– “Homage to My Hips” by Lucille Clifton
– “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” by Galway Kinnell

WHEN YOU FEEL SPIRITUAL
– “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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“254” by Emily Dickinson

Back in Sunday school class many moons ago, we memorized Bible verses. That simple act of committing words to memory acted as both a game and challenge to my budding brain. If you didn’t go to Sunday school or attend church, how did memorization play its part in your life growing up?

What about now?

In exploring MFA poetry programs several years back, I researched the virtues of one program over another. Hours spent reading poets I *might* get to study with led to this nifty excel grid compiled of pluses and minuses, of stars and notes to self. One item that I starred for the MFA program at NEC consisted of a simple exercise that separated them from the others. The program required each student to memorize a poem per semester. This may not seem like a big deal, you’d say, poets memorize poems. To this I would counter and conjecture that the poetry they memorize is most likely their own.

When the semester began so did the poetry recitations. Students pulled aside one of the teachers to rattle off the poem in between seminars. Others recited them at the beginning of workshops in front of fellow students, one of which held the poem in hand and provided word prompts in case of flubs.

I think it holds an important place for each of us. Memorization stretches the muscle of the mind and tests my mettle. It lets the music of the poet and poem being memorized become part of us and perhaps even subconsciously suggest music for our own work. It asks us the hard questions: “Will I hang with the poem and let its rhythms coax their way into the recesses of my brain? Will I do the work to remember this in a week, a month, a year or is this going into the stores of short term memory?

Emily Dickinson inevitably holds a place in the library of most poets. My MFA friend Michelle deeply espoused Emily Dickinson and even began looking like her, albeit with blonde hair.  During my first semester at NEC, our band of poets carpooled to Amherst for a poetry reading. After the reading, most of us headed back to our cars and back to the campus. Later that evening, in the dorms, friends Sherry and Mercedes talked about wandering over to the graveyard after the reading and stumbling in the dark looking for the grave of  Emily Dickinson with two other poets. This later turned into a poem penned by Joe Gouveia and painted a story that kind of made me wish I’d been in their car.

Poem 254, “Hope is the thing with feathers” stands out among the poems memorized during my MFA program. This compact poem’s building weight lingers long after the final stanza “it asked a crumb of me” is read. Early on the poem brings to mind a bird and the freedom of wings and flight along with the tittering of a joyfulness. The second stanza edges into darker terrain as it must when hope is involved. Even in the midst of the storm, her language still evokes a certainty that is not completely sorrowful. But that changes in stanza three, as she positions “chillest land” and “strangest sea” as examples of where she has heard hope. This stanza has an overriding sentiment of loneliness to it that makes me the reader sad. It’s as if after all the things that hope can do and in which it can prevail, it doesn’t reach fruition for the speaker in the poem.

Scrawled by hand on a robin’s egg blue notecard above my desk hangs “254.” This poem’s importance to me cannot be underscored enough. The words came to me while lying still for an hour and a half recently in a plastic tube for an MRI. “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul…” Aside from the classical music playing through headphones, the rag covering my eyes from seeing the curve of plastic inches from my face and my arms fallen against the narrow sides of the tube walls, against all of these things came Emily Dickinson’s words. And then a litany of prayers of gratitude for the people populating my life and giving me hope.

the complete poems of emily dickinson

254
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune-without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

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“Tucson” by Stephen Dunn

Poetry curated. Believing poetry can change the world, the intention here is to introduce and discuss compelling poems. My desire is to invoke a sense of longing in you to find a poem and a poet whose work speaks to your soul. When it happens, it can set your skin ablaze. In a good way.

Recently, my friend Jay came over for a Sunday afternoon poetry workshop. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while- enough time had passed to learn he is working on a screen play and I’m recently married. As we settled into our workshop time, we kicked it off with writing prompts. Later we exchanged poems, providing feedback and the conversation expected during a workshop. I highly regard him as a friend who writes poems in form and meter with litheness of pen, and he shared some tips for me as I set out in my exploration of writing in rhyme and meter.

If you ever get the chance to ask a poet what they are reading and what is inspiring them, stand back. The answers are mellifluous! Jay shared the poem below with me and I in turn am sharing it with you. Poetry is like that- it’s meant to be shared.

The poem “Tucson” by Stephen Dunn is not the kind of poem that shimmers with adjectives. I think the spare description in this narrative poem builds such a fantastic tension that’s augmented in the line “but I’m not important.” – the narrator wants all eyes on the scene unfolding. Even the line length seems like a stilted dance with some short lines and others that are long in this tight poem. The poet builds the climax by naming the frailty of the human body instead of naming the fight breaking out. “I’d forgotten / how fragile the face is, how fists too / are just so many small bones.” The dexterity of this line really calls out the humanity that is the point in this poem because there are a lot of people in the poem. And they are “Mexicans, Indians, whites.” The deft way the woman in question moves on to dance with another woman after the fight breaks out points to fights being a regular occurrence. Even the narrator’s hands “were fidgety, damp.” This poem encapsulates place by naming it after a city and using the scenario of a bar fight to describe the tensions among its inhabitants.

It’s an interesting way to consider writing a poem. If you were to write a poem about your city, how would you structure it? Where would it take place and what would be the core essence of your city you would want as a grand take-away?

______________________________

Tucson
by Stephen Dunn from “Loosestrife

A man was dancing with the wrong woman
in the wrong bar, the wrong part of town.
He must have chosen the woman, the place,
as keenly as you choose what to wear
when you dress to kill.
And the woman, who could have said no,
must have made her choice years ago,
to look like the kind of trouble
certain men choose as their own.
I was there for no good reason myself,
with a friend looking for a friend,
but I’m not important.
They were dancing close
when a man from the bar decided
the dancing was wrong. I’d forgotten
how fragile the face is, how fists too
are just so many small bones.
The bouncer waited, then broke in.
Someone wiped up the blood.
The woman began to dance
with another woman, each in tight jeans.
The air pulsed. My hands
were fidgety, damp.
We were Mexicans, Indians, whites.
The woman was part this, part that.
My friend said nothing’s wrong, stay put,
it’s a good fighting bar, you won’t get hurt
unless you need to get hurt.

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Poetry Curated: “Daisies” by Louise Glück

I know what you’re going to say, “Annelies, it’s not April anymore. Poetry month has passed us by.” I agree with you on the first point. The latter point would require conversation.

Life is rife with poetry- why subject it to only one month’s notice?

I have wrestled with the suitability of posting other people’s poems here, notably poems published in books. Hence why, it is now almost the end of June and I am just rolling around to sharing my second poem from my curated selection of poems for Poetry Month.  My desire is to invoke a sense of longing in you to find a poem and a poet whose work speaks to your soul.

There is no attempt at copyright infringement intended, just a wanting and trying to share the infectious thing that is poetry, so we shall proceed, unless and until I am asked to remove the poems.

The collection of poems found in “The Wild Iris” by Louise Glück is radiant. The persona poems within embody such lush beauty.  I’ve selected “Daisies” below as part of poetry curated. What I particularly appreciate about this poem is how the line length and syntax sort of arrest you. It’s not an easy poem to get through and this is akin to the struggle between the natural world and the industrial that occurs everyday. Don’t believe me? Try taking a long leisurely walk outside during your lunch break tomorrow rather than the typical one you might partake of behind the desk. In this poem, the natural world resembles something “sentimental” but it demands all of you. We give up our hold and the hold of the natural world upon us far too easily.

________________________________________________

Wild Iris by Louise Gluck

 

Daisies
by Louise Gluck, from “The Wild Iris”

Go ahead: say what you’re thinking. The garden
is not the real world. Machines
are the real world. Say frankly what any fool
could read in your face: it makes sense
to avoid us, to resist
nostalgia. It is
not modern enough, the sound the wind makes
stirring a meadow of daisies: the mind
cannot shine following it. And the mind
wants to shine, plainly, as
machines shine, and not
grow deep, as, for example, roots. It is very touching,
all the same, to see you cautiously
approaching the meadow’s border in early morning,
when no one could possibly
be watching you. The longer you stand at the edge,
the more nervous you seem. No one wants to hear
impressions of the natural world: you will be
laughed at again; scorn will be piled on you.
As for what you’re actually
hearing this morning: think twice
before you tell anyone what was said in this field
and by whom.

Categories
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“Daisies” by Louise Glück

I know what you’re going to say, “Annelies, it’s not April anymore. Poetry month has passed us by.” I agree with you on the first point. The latter point would require conversation.

Life is rife with poetry- why subject it to only one month’s notice?

I have wrestled with the suitability of posting other people’s poems here, notably poems published in books. Hence why, it is now almost the end of June and I am just rolling around to sharing my second poem from my curated selection of poems for Poetry Month.  My desire is to invoke a sense of longing in you to find a poem and a poet whose work speaks to your soul.

There is no attempt at copyright infringement intended, just a wanting and trying to share the infectious thing that is poetry, so we shall proceed, unless and until I am asked to remove the poems.

The collection of poems found in “The Wild Iris” by Louise Glück is radiant. The persona poems within embody such lush beauty.  I’ve selected “Daisies” below as part of poetry curated. What I particularly appreciate about this poem is how the line length and syntax sort of arrest you. It’s not an easy poem to get through and this is akin to the struggle between the natural world and the industrial that occurs everyday. Don’t believe me? Try taking a long leisurely walk outside during your lunch break tomorrow rather than the typical one you might partake of behind the desk. In this poem, the natural world resembles something “sentimental” but it demands all of you. We give up our hold and the hold of the natural world upon us far too easily.

________________________________________________

Wild Iris by Louise Gluck

 

Daisies
by Louise Gluck, from “The Wild Iris”

Go ahead: say what you’re thinking. The garden
is not the real world. Machines
are the real world. Say frankly what any fool
could read in your face: it makes sense
to avoid us, to resist
nostalgia. It is
not modern enough, the sound the wind makes
stirring a meadow of daisies: the mind
cannot shine following it. And the mind
wants to shine, plainly, as
machines shine, and not
grow deep, as, for example, roots. It is very touching,
all the same, to see you cautiously
approaching the meadow’s border in early morning,
when no one could possibly
be watching you. The longer you stand at the edge,
the more nervous you seem. No one wants to hear
impressions of the natural world: you will be
laughed at again; scorn will be piled on you.
As for what you’re actually
hearing this morning: think twice
before you tell anyone what was said in this field
and by whom.