I forget why exactly I started doing this. But about four years ago now, I began memorizing T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.
Yep. The whole thing. From “Let us go then…” to “…and we drown.” All the glorious words in between.
At that time my life was going off the rails professionally, my finances were in the tank, and I was facing some major life decisions like “should I stay in this city?” and “what the hell am I doing with my life?”
In times of anguish, I have always turned to literature to help me through. But until then, I had only read it. My favorite volumes of poetry have heavily dog-eared corners; their spines are broken where I have folded them back to read; their pages crinkled from nights spent sleeping on them.
But this time I wanted more. I wanted to have the words of “Prufrock” in my brain. To call them up whenever and wherever I needed them. I wanted to be able to stand on the train or walk down the street with an invisible book in front of my eyes with all of the words I loved at the ready.
So I crammed one stanza into my head. I repeated it for a week. Over and over again, I let the words roll around on my tongue. I muttered them quietly to myself on the shuttle bus to school. I wrote them out while my students worked on in-class writing assignments.
And I found myself feeling happier.
Memorizing some of my favorite words gave me a small measure of control in an otherwise insane time. It was something positive I could do each day. One or two lines. A sentence to stick in my mind palace.
And almost two years later, I had the whole poem in there. And it still feels amazing. I drag it out all the time, quoting sections to myself as I feel the need for them. And often they just pop in there when I am doing something else. Bits of a poem there to remind me that language is amazing and poetry is good for healthy living.
And just as I was working on this post, a Tweet came across my feed about this very thing! It contained a quote that says exactly what I want to say:
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat. ~ Brad Leithauser on why memorize poetry (Source: Brain Pickings/Explore)
I am happy to say that things have gotten better (personally and professionally) from that time. But I still find it nice to spend a few moments a day either reading or memorizing poetry.
Here’s what I have in my brain-box at the moment:
T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Dear Friends”
The first five stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (this is a fun one, but I haven’t sat down to work on the rest of it yet…)
The last page of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (of which I also have a tattoo)
Have you memorized any poems? Or have ambitions to? What would you memorize if you set your mind to it?