“Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Miss Romano’s fourth grade class was gathered on the rough green carpeting listening to a small blonde girl with a turned up nose recite from memory “I Hate Homework” by Shel Silverstein.
The year was 1993. The place was Floris Elementary in Northern Virginia. I was dressed entirely in black.
As the little cherub was finishing, “Homework oh homework you’re last on my list. / I simply don’t see why you even exist,” I stood up, indicating my readiness to Romano with the stoicism of a samurai readying for battle. The cherub finished. The class applauded mechanically and hushed.
“Yes, Sarah? You’re ready?”
“Yes,” I said to Romano, that pedagogical twerp, “I am ready.”
I made my way through the clustered crowd of quiet cross-legged tots. As I stood before them, I took an audibly deep breath, almost a pained hysterical sigh. Then, I began.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visiter,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’”
Was anyone ever so young?
Well, yes. I was nine years old and had memorized my first bit of poetry for Miss Romano’s recitation assignment. (I only did the first five stanzas—to do the entire thing would have been, well, freakish.)
Meanwhile, the context was this: My parents were in the middle of their divorce. They were in and out of the courtroom, it seemed, on a constant rotation for one thing or another, and I would miss, that year, 48 days of school due to severe anxiety that made me, literally, sick to my stomach. So, not only was I hardly ever present for Miss Romano’s class—when I was, I was reciting morose verse to my highly impressionable classmates. Miss Romano didn’t seem pleased.
Back then, everything and everyone around me was shifting. The room I lived in would change in a few months. People, a house, and belongings would be lost. But I could live a while in those first stanzas of “The Raven,” and Poe, unchanging, was with me and would—with “each silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”—always be.
Since then, I’ve memorized a number of other poems, from Wyatt to Hopkins to Berryman to Marie Howe. And just last week, I memorized another poem in which, like “The Raven,” a dark bird plays a large role: Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” an appropriate inauguration into my 25th year.
While I was working on memorizing the ode (The best approach for memorizing lengthy poems, I think, is doing one stanza in the morning and one stanza at night), I was also—probably like many others these days—rereading Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. In it, Franny is reading a book, which, at her twerpy boyfriend’s request, she struggles to describe:
“‘I don’t know. It’s peculiar. I mean it’s primarily a religious book. In a way, I suppose you could say it’s terribly fanatical, but in a way it isn’t. I mean it starts out with this peasant—the pilgrim—wanting to find out what it means in the Bible when it says you should pray incessantly. You know. Without stopping. In Thessalonians or someplace. So he starts out walking all over Russia, looking for somebody who can tell him how to pray incessantly. And what you should say if you do.’”
Franny, earlier in the novel, also talks about poetry, or rather, argues with her twerp of a boyfriend about what great poetry should do:
“‘I know this much, is all,’ Franny said. ‘If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings—excuse the expression.’”
I’m still ruminating over these ideas: how prayer relates to memory, and if poetry has taken over the role of prayer for those of us who grew up in religiously convoluted or agnostic households, and how memorizing and repeating language creates a feeling of transcendence.
I know this much, is all: While I was memorizing “Ode to a Nightingale,” its words and rhythms ran through my head all day, like a song, and there was a quality of incessant prayer to it. The mind-space that would normally be taken up by, most likely, quotidian chatter—what I needed to buy at the store, who I needed to email, what the point of doing anything whatsoever is, what would happen if I got hit by a car without health insurance—was replaced with:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Just as Keats fades, dissolves, and forgets the weariness, fever and fret of living while listening to the nightingale’s song, I found myself—on my walk to the bakery for a muffin and coffee, or brushing my teeth at night—dissolving in the music that Keats conjured, and taking such consolation in the sounds that I would feel transformed and would often forget where I was and what I was doing. (“Room for milk in your coffee?” “That I might drink and leave the world unseen!—er…yes, please.”)
But whether you are inclined to think of memorizing poems as a kind of religious act or an exercise in staving off Alzheimer’s, it is invariably a learning experience for anyone attempting to write poetry. By letting someone like Keats inside your head, you, in turn, enter the mind of Keats and, as you memorize each line, you come to a better understanding of the decisions he made while writing, therefore coming to a more complete appreciation of the beautiful things that the poet did. It is the difference between renting a hotel room for a few days in a strange city and owning a mansion in the city middle, from whose windows you can observe the city’s inner workings, into whose rooms (“stanza,” as we know, being the Italian word for “room”) you can wander and sit for hours:
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.