I wanted to memorize poems. To be able to beckon them at a moment’s notice.
When I was 10, I spent hours trying to memorize Hiawatha’s Childhood by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and though I read it many times and loved the closeness of Nokomis and Hiawatha to the animals and birds, I could only remember some of the lines.
I did master Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer, drawn to its athletic machismo (I've always been a jock-at-heart), but also to how that haughtiness can be our failing. I have since forgotten most of it.
In my 20s, when I was taking students on backpacking trips, I memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service—a marvelous poem to listen to while trekking through the snow, or tucked into sleeping bags against the night chill:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake LaBarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”
So begins the first two stanzas. Writing this, I realize I want to refresh my memory so I can recall it all--I always forget some of the lines.
Such a classic; such fun to be able to recite.
After years of wanting to once again memorize poems, but never finding either the discipline or the right poem (I think the latter is key), I recently found a poem by Mary Oliver that spoke to me so deeply,
I knew I had to commit it to memory.
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and they call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”