I always wanted to be a person who could quote poetry, gracefully and without pretension. I imagined myself dropping a lapidary line or two into dinner-party conversation and toasting brides eloquently without resorting to the Internet.
I liked the idea of stocking my mind with supplies of beauty. But when I was growing up in the ’70s, schools didn’t emphasize rote memorization, and especially not recitation of poetry; like penmanship, it was a fading art.
I had a scrap or two of Shakespeare and a Blake poem that one beloved teacher had prompted me to learn, but I didn’t break them out at dinner parties. I just soothed myself with them when I was having trouble falling asleep or needed something for my mind to chew over that it hadn’t already mauled.
So I picked a new poem to memorize. How hard would that be in middle age, I wondered? I settled on a short Edna St. Vincent Millay poem with a repeated couplet: “We were very tired, we were very merry, / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.” I was especially drawn to the poem’s bright, concrete images (apples and pears, ferry whistles and morning newspapers) and to the sense the verses conveyed of being young and full of sweet, reckless life. It was only later that I realized the poem had the perfect title, given my project: “Recuerdo” (Spanish for “I remember”).
To my delight, it wasn’t hard! I read “Recuerdo” aloud a couple of times, spent about a half hour focusing on two lines at a time, then had my kids test me three times.
Unlike song lyrics, which I regularly mangle, the poem has stayed in my mind, as have others I’ve memorized since, simply because I’d set myself the task instead of imagining the words would effortlessly float into my brain and settle there.
Now I’m thinking of having a dinner party where I ask all the guests to recite a poem they’ve learned, as the lovely phrase has it, by heart.
Maragret Talbot is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century.
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