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Perfumeries of Words: My Memorization Practice
by Susan McCaslin, Fort Langley BC
Since retiring from teaching English and Creative Writing at a community college in 2007, I’ve developed a fairly regular practice of memorizing poems while walking in the countryside around Fort Langley. I trace my earliest poetic legacy to the Romantics like Wordsworth and Keats who wandered the countryside carefully observing nature and also composing poems in their heads.
My paternal grandmother was a severe but impassioned schoolteacher who believed
in learning poems “by rote,” as was common in her day. I cried when I heard her
whispering lines from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” on her deathbed:
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul.”
Her legacy to me was a well-worn anthology of poems that still falls open at her favourite places. Despite being a staunch Presbyterian, she was a student of the world’s religions, very curious and open-minded in her way.
So I learned from her that memorizing poetry can be heart-work. You impress the poem so intensely into your psyche that it becomes a permanent part of you – mind, emotions, body, and all. It can see you through life’s big shifts and transformations.
In an age when we are inundated with masses of information, taking time to memorize words we love can become a kind of spiritual practice. It takes work and patience to allow words to penetrate and rest in the heart.
I began my practice by working with rhymed and metered poems, “chestnuts” from my childhood and from graduate school that have remained with me. Rhyme is a mnemonic device, so a rhymed poem is generally much easier to commit to memory, at least for me, than free verse.
“I’m Nobody, Who are You?” by Emily Dickinson was one of the first poems I memorized when embarking on this enterprise. The poem came fairly easily, partly because it was short, and partly because I liked how she creates intimacy with the hearer:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog! (ii)
What has intensified for me in the process of memorization is the palpable sense of bonding with the heart and mind of the author. It’s also fun to give oneself permission to add exclamations points and dashes into the delivery!
At the risk of sounding “mystical,” I’d say there’s a sense of channeling that goes on, whether you interpret that as a literal or metaphorical occurrence. The poet’s words instantly take you into the state of mind of the poet at the time of the composing – that is, right inside the poetic process. Why just this word here? Yes, that’s right! And that bit of enjambment! Who would have thought?
A poet’s words are like little perfumeries that release their essence as you reenact the process of their making. Being with the poem in this way can be a form of communion. In memorizing, there’s a sense of co-creating, a joining of your voice to the poet’s and to the voices of all those who have read the poem aloud or silently since its conception.
I’m a classic introvert, but memorizing a poem is more like declaiming or acting than quiet reading, so it allows you to release your inner drama major too. While memorizing Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn,” I would notice my voice suddenly booming out in unexpected places as if Coleridge himself were prompting – “Give it a big blast here. There, a hush, a whisper.” This was not how I had planned to recite.
Then there’s the fun of discovering how many ways there are to read a line as the voice plays over the thrumming metrical base. Memorizing allows me to feel in my pulse the rhythms and cadences of the poem. Because it isn’t my own poem, I feel freer, less inhibited, more capable of assuming an identity other than that of my ordinary self. I’m free to be Nobody, and Everybody.
There’s also an excitement when you get to the place where you know the poem so well you don’t have to worry about stumbling or forgetting a line or word. Soon the dance begins, the soaring, the play. By painstakingly living with the poem over days or weeks or months, the poem will give itself to you in new ways. You and the poem become friends.
Memorization has also changed my art by giving me new poems. When I was working on “Kubla Kahn,” for instance, a mesmerizing and complex poem with many shifts in tone and rhythm, I began to notice how Coleridge’s imagery of a collapsing paradise, a cataclysmic destruction where “huge fragments [are] vaulting like rebounding hail,” parallels the impact of global warming on our Arctic landscapes. In the end I wrote my own tribute poem called “Xanadu Two” that integrates aspects of Coleridge’s rhythm, structure, and imagery to explore global warming. Call it mere fancy, but I imagined this is the sort of thing the bard would be writing about today. Of course, writing “after Coleridge” has its risks – but why not be foolish?
Often, memorizing a poem awakens new insights into works we thought we knew. When “committing to heart” (a lovely phrase) Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody,” I began to see it not as a statement of self-effacement, but as a Zen koan about the freedom of discovering each of us is a “no self.” “How dreary to be somebody,” indeed! I’ll have breakfast with Emily, this ecstatic one “rowing in paradise,” any time and enter the no-self zone.
The final way in which memorizing poems has changed my poetic practice is that it has given me greater confidence, not just in myself, but in my poems, and in poetry itself. I’ll tell you a couple of stories to illustrate.
I was at a poetry reading where, for the third time in my life, I stood up without script or text to recite a poem. This one was the “Kubla Khan” I had worked so hard to memorize. The crowd was with me and I delivered the poem as if I had stepped inside Coleridge’s dream. I felt fearless, fierce, enamoured of the “damsel with a dulcimer,” and took the audience with me. I became a woman with “flashing eyes…and floating hair” who had “drunk the milk of paradise.” The next day, a friend of mine said, “You know, Susan, I wish you would read your own poems with the same passionate intensity with which you read the Coleridge.” I realized that my belief in the utter timelessness of Coleridge’s art had given me permission to step out, to be transported and to transport. I realized that often when reading my own poems, I’m seconding-guessing myself. What will they think of this line? Should I be wearing red shoes? Oh, no, I want to change that line. Is that person in the back disengaged, asleep? And the good news is that since memorizing, I have moved just a little further toward casting off self-doubt and standing behind (within) my words in the honouring of the craft.
When travelling in Turkey in 2010 summer I had the opportunity to stand on the stage in a Greek amphitheatre and recite Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us” that ends with the magnificent image of Triton blowing “his wreathed horn.” With the blue Mediterranean behind me, I felt I could almost hear its clarion blast. The acoustics of the place were so excellent that my group, standing at the top of the amphitheatre, could hear every word. As an elderly friend of mine used to say, “You could hear a pin drop.”
Despite the delights of memorizing poems, there are some difficulties inherent in the practice. The first snag is an aging brain, as I will soon be having my “Will You Still Need Me, / Will You Still Feed Me” potluck to celebrate my 70th.
I’ve never had what some call a “photographic memory,” but memorizing now takes longer than it used to. What is encouraging is that recent scientific research indicates memorization may sustain and even improve memory. I swear I can actually feel new grooves being laid down in my lobes as I plug along line by line and stanza by stanza.
Another difficulty is that as I wander through the fields of cows in Langley, BC, while declaiming and gesturing, I fear some kind farmer will one day decide to have me committed. But never mind. Who cares what the neighbours think? One of the pleasures of being an elder is that I’m reciting out of the box.
Lastly, is the problem of sustaining the momentum of memorization. Turmoil happens, deadlines are laid down for various projects, and it’s not easy to keep on walking with a poem in my pocket while plodding along, mastering a line or two a day forgetting them the next.
Yet this practice has been complementary to my primary practice of receiving and crafting poems. Retiring from my day job at 60 offered the privilege of being a full time writer and broadening the practices that enhance my writing. Though I feel as busy as ever, as most so-called retired (“re-fired”) people do, I really do have more time to walk, meditate, and attend to the interior workings of poems.
Up until several years ago, living with a very active mini-Australian Shepherd pushed me out the door for long walks at least twice daily. Fortunately, we’re adopting a new pup into our lives soon. Living in the countryside along the Fraser River provides me with lots of beautiful places to walk. The rhythm of walking and the rhythms of poetry go hand in hand. I can’t seem to memorize while sitting at my desk or making supper. Being alone, except for the companionship of my canine friend, has been a pre-condition for effective memorization. The peripatetic poets and philosophers have always known the benefits of walking in nature on both health and what we now call the “plasticity” of the brain. Let’s hope they’re right.
i. Excerpts from this essay were first published
as part of an interview with Catherine Owen included in her The Other 23 &
a Half Hours: Or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You (Hamilton,
ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2015), 24-28. It was
also blogged on Wood Lake Books’ “Essential Spirituality”
ii. Emily Dickinson, Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems (Toronto: Little, Brown & Co.), 1961), 47-48.
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