Memorize and recite

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Started “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” in the park; words by James Agee, photos by Walker Evans.

Grace asked me for recommendations of poems to memorize and recite for class. I started throwing out suggestions—Elizabeth Bishop! Maxine Kumin! Auden! Everything by Robert Hass and Marie Howe, OMG, Marie Howe!—and I realized: Wow, I do really love poetry. I never thought I did. I always thought poetry eluded my intellect; poems never presented themselves to me in that bold, friendly way like novels did. Poems hid behind veils and shadows; poems could be capricious, malicious. I have never believed that I ever “got” poetry, and I have certainly never believed that I could ever write it (that much has not changed).

Being married to a poet makes you realize how very difficult writing is, and how very miraculous it is when everything comes out well. Poetry is a different animal to me, often alien and shy, but I respect it. I imagine I will always be reading poems, remaining continually and happily mystified by them. I will always love them in the way that you love a humpback whale, because it is so far from being you.

“I have been standing all my life in the/direct path of a battery of signals”

I memorized and recited various poems in my career as an English major, but the one I most remember is “Planetarium,” by Adrienne Rich. It was a difficult, dizzying experience. I mispronounced “Tycho” and only guessed at “Uranusborg.” And those middling couplets were so hard to remember, but that last, fast stanza—it was a delight to proclaim; it made my little sophomore body feel strong, unconquerable, distinct.

We like to talk about the things that “our children” will do, things that we sort of did as children but that we want to elevate to a virtue, to distinguish our offspring from the mundane, materialistic masses. Our children will never watch TV. Our children will play outside every day. Our children will not be pacified with iPhones and iPads. Our children will play with sticks and string. Our children will study Asian languages from birth. All of these things will surely fall by the wayside when and if we actually have babies, but one thing is for sure: Our children WILL memorize poems.

How everything turns away

(Yeah, I know, everyone’s read it, but read it again! It’s worth it!)

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," by Brueghel.

Musée des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Happy Friday. Maybe this beautiful little poem is grim, but it’s also such a gentle and compassionate way to think about people, to remember that suffering is happening all around us, “while someone is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along.” Hope your weekend is filled with those kinds of realizations.