After my last post about the value of memorizing poetry, a reader requested a list of great poems to memorize for the summer.
My list is short: the greatest poem to memorize for the summer is a poem you love.
Love is why children memorize Mother Goose rhymes. Love is why poetry critic David Orr’s father wanted to hear Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” over and over as he lay dying of cancer. (That poem tops my list of poems to memorize, by the way. It fairly trips off the tongue. And as Orr’s father put it, “I really like the runcible spoon.”)
Most of us have memorized more poems than we imagine, if you include limericks and jump rope rhymes, and in my household, the Little Willie poems (children love these gruesome poems). If you want to stick with nonsense and rhyme, try Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” It’s plain old fun to say out loud:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
(In a poetry-recitation contest I once held, a student recited all of “Jabberwocky” with a growly Scottish accent. He won, hands down.)
The best resource for kids or adults memorizing poetry is The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry. I grew up with that book, spent hours flipping through the 400 poems and looking at the illustrations. You can still order it from Barnes and Noble. Treasury, and indeed it is, has such gems as Ogden Nash’s “Introduction to Dogs” (still funny), classics for memorizing like Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (Listen my children and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere), lots of Lear, some Dickinson, Whitman, Bishop, and plenty of silly poems children love.
On the web there’s an enormous list of poems to memorize at Poetry Out Loud. Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for high school students.
That should be all you need for the summer, but still, I’ll make you a list.
Poem Elf’s List of Poems for Memorizing
1. For a first-time ever memorizing experience: “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge. This little poem is a cinch to memorize and exceedingly useful, like a breath mint or Kleenex, for times you need to start afresh. I’ll reprint it rather than link it to encourage memorization:
Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
And possible pain,
Take heart with the new day and begin again.
(FYI, I wrote that from memory. Just needed to check on the punctuation.)
2. For summer: Yeats’ “The Isle of Lake Innisfree.” It’s fairly short, it’s broken up into stanzas, it rhymes and the sounds are so pleasurable they’re like caramels in your mouth.
3. For fall: “Spring and Fall to a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Another poem that trips off the tongue.
4. In preparation for Dec. 21, 2012 (the Mayan calendar end-of-the-world date): Yeats’ “Second Coming.” Worth memorizing for its many unforgettable lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
5. For when you’ve got a Burt Bacharach “I just don’t know what to do with myself” kind of moment: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans.” You’ll settle down when you can say to yourself, “Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,/House without air, I leave you and lock your door.”
6. For a middle-aged crisis and for a quick feeling of accomplishment: A.E. Housman’s “With Rue My Heart is Laden.” Effortlessly memorized and timeless.
7. For a challenge: T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s long, but it’s musical. (Since my last my last post, I’ve memorized the first part.) Or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” And Anthony Hecht’s parody of that poem, “Dover Bitch.”
8. To impress: any of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Imagine being called on for a toast at a friend’s birthday party and being able to pull out these lines from Sonnet 104:
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still.
This list could be endless, but I’ll stop myself here.
Anyone have some favorites they’ve memorized? How have they come in handy?
I love Poem Elf’s list and am so happy she is there doing this because she’s made me think of favorite lines that go through my head often and I know I’d never be fully conscious of it were it not for her posting today!
I haven’t memorized whole poems but lines come to mind and sometimes at the oddest times.
Amy Lowell’s Patterns and the final line (or at least how I recall it) “my God what are patterns for?” comes to me when I’m leaning over the bathtub, scrub sponge in hand, Comet dusting the dull porcelain. Why do I think of that line while I’m doing that?
I think of Shakespeare’s plays as long poems and there’s a line from Richard III where one of the men he’d sent to kill the boys in the tower is recounting the deed. Wrenched by the memory of it, he’s telling how hard it was to do but then cries out in agony “But oh the devil!” I think of this line often. Certainly when hearing about crimes against children but also when hearing about cruelty or unkindness in any of their myriad forms…
I especially recall, perhaps imperfectly (o what I would give to have my tattered copy at hand!!) lines used as captions in the wonderful photography collection called The Family of Man, a copy of which I had years ago and loved until it fell apart. Like “I was alone with the beating of my heart,” recalled at stressful or sad times. And “she was the tree of life to them,” when I think of my and other mothers.
The one that is my favorite and that comes to me when I’m startled by beauty, expected and not: “…and shall not loveliness be loved forever…” I swear that as I even think that lyrical line my physiology is changed for the better…
I love that last one so much I tracked it down. From a play by Euripedes, spoken by a chorus of maidens:
What else is Wisdom? What of man’s endeavour
Or God’s high grace, so lovely and so great?
To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait;
To hold a hand uplifted over Hate;
And shall not Loveliness be loved for ever?
And I’m going to adopt your “but oh the devil” as a tool for stomaching the Sandusky trial.
I just recalled yet another line from The Family of Man.
There’s a photograph of a haggard man with sunken eyes about to engulf with wide-open mouth a bit of food. The accompanying line is “nothing is real to us but hunger.”
I think of this when I’m legitimately hungry and sitting down to a well-earned meal–as opposed to boredom and craving “hunger,” at which times I don’t have any favorite lines running through my head. I just hear a hectoring Dr Phil intoning “Nonononononono…”
From that very poetry book (I think — I have a different cover) — after a closer look, yes, edited by Untermeyer, that is the book!
George Who Played with a Dangerous Toy and Suffered A Catastrophe of Considerable Dimensions — by Hillaire Belloc.
I memorized it for summer school after 4th grade and it was very popular.
… the lights went out, the windows broke, the room was filled with reeking smoke, and in the darkness shrieks and yells were mingled with electric bells…”
Very musical and very popular among the very young.
Memorized The Road Not Taken (Frost) and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Frost), both in 6th grade. Memorized for poetry contests in junior high school (never won, but still remember competing) — a poem by Amy Lowell and a poem … hmmm, Custard the Dragon, I think was the title.
Both times I lost it was to students who went on to become actors for a living. (Interesting, no?).
I remember Custard the Dragon!
Thanks for sharing all this.
How funny — I memorized Amy Lowell’s Patterns — and the last line is:
Christ! What are patterns for?
Oh thanks for that! I’m glad you know the poem because I adored it. I didn’t think anybody else knew of it!
My son moderated his high school’s competition for National Poetry Out Loud http://www.poetryoutloud.org/ — which has a list of poems and a national recitation contest, school by school, every year. Robert was a junior and the competition was for sophomores and about 120 kids from a class of 1000 competed — many of them for extra credit in English, but most of them clearly were caught by the bug and most of them were perfectly wonderful. I LOVE many of the modern poems on that list, particularly by Billy Collins (they have trimmed his list of eligible poems considerably — I love Snow Day (which was recited several times that night), and Fishing on the Susquehanna in July (still on the list and also recited several times that night), but my favorite that night was Forgetfulness (now off the approved list) — read it. It will make you smile.
Thanks for the new ones to love (or love again).
I love Collins’ Forgetfulness too but I forgot I knew it until I looked it up. Thanks!
Oh I love the Lake of Innisfree
Also, lately I read “The two times I loved you most in a car” by Dorothea Grossman and I loved that. Also, it’s short to memorize.. oops
Thanks for highlighting that poem. Hadn’t read it before. Beautiful
put it all in my head to bring out, to remind myself, to share with others… at a bar mitzvah, to a Catholic priest, to Heart of Healer retreat leader, to Ways of Knowing conference organizer…. but mostly to reorient myself to “see under the trash, through the smog, the furry bee in the apple blossom… let the little quarrels of the bones and the snarling of the lesser appetites and the whining of the ego cease…” I also love her “To Be Of Use” which you posted for a father’s day.
And many others, which sometimes “want” to be together. A trio:
Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” (heard on Poetry Exchange), Dorothy Parker’s “Coda” – similarly cynical, biting and then, echo of the Larkin in form (3 stanzas, similar rhythm) but with a sweet anticipatory wistfulness that, for me, brings it back around to a kind of blessing.
Several of (or parts of) John O’Donohue’s Blessings – I see you know of his work – and – I am sorry for the loss of your Sweet Beth. Beannáct, of course – first heard from OnBeing – and offered as a balm to several. the couple of fragments include one I could not figure out until I put it in my head and repeated it to better grasp what was being said.
“I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.”
and from his Blessing for the Artist at the Start of Day —
“May this be a morning of
When the gift within you
Of the sticky web of the personal
With its hurt and
and fixed fortress corners,
A morning when you become
a pure vessel
For what wants to ascend
This hearkens back to Nishmat, of course and also to Wendell Berry’s “How To Be A Poet (to remind myself)” of which the beginning becomes a mantra:
“Make a place to sit down.
and the end
“Make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”
though it was this, from the middle that grabbed my attention as I listened to the poet read it –
“there are no unsacred places,
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places”
Thank you for some projects of poems to put into my head.
Thank you for your blog,
–and for your index so I could see – ah, of course you know this poet, or that poet – but have not (yet?) used the poems above.
I only just discovered you at Thanksgiving – looking again for Mary Oliver’s “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris…” and a search brought me to your post of it, and your blog. I continue to be grateful for that discovery.
I have been a poster of poems in slightly less random places – mostly at clinic and hospital where I work, since before having found you. You have given me new energy for this – and oodles of new material as I like much of what you say you like – short(ish) poems that make me look in a new way and usually are somehow enlivening.
Nishmat by Marge Piercy. Asked to read (most) of it for a friend’s UU ordination, I
(this was the first line, which looks like it got cut off)
Ah, ok, I was confused
Nancy, Thanks for all these reflections. So true what you said about how memorizing a poem and getting it in your head can allow the “meaning” of a poem to become clearer.
Thank you for all the poems you’ve listed here….some new to me….looking forward to reading them in full.
Wonderful that you are a poem elf too! Do you post your pictures anywhere? I wonder how many of us are out there….
Thank you for your reply! I am delighted to be able to share with you some poems to discover as you have become a treasure trove for me. I try to post poems as brief meditations – to take us out of ourselves, to catch our breath, to shift the lens, to remind ourselves of the that what drew us in may not be what keeps us doing what we do, but here we are, doing it. I have not posted pictures or taken pictures. I have left them in places around clinic and hospital – for people to take if they wish. The barking dog solo – the Billy Collins poem “Another reason I don’t keep a gun in the house” – I put about for a laugh, mostly. One colleague was trying to make a tie to medicine and I could really only offer that it was one way to make something charming out of those chronic irritations.
I adored Marc Rosen’s It wasn’t Supposed to be This. The chunks and the morsels in the tureen… in contrast to the thin watery bitter, bland, banal. So well put.
Another error of posting, (in addition to leaving off the first line) I see, is that I failed to mention name and poet for the trio of poems. The third, the balm (to the cynical Larkin and Parker) and maybe uplifting one (pun probably intended) is John Stone’s “Song for Tossing a Son.”
John Stone was a cardiologist and poet who wrote “Forecast” – about grief, and “Autopsy in the Form of an Elegy” which is also both hard and consoling – and brief. His “Gaudeamus Igitur” was a poem written as graduation speech for Emory School of Medicine which begins, after Geoffrey Smart, “For this day has been fourteen hundred and sixty days in coming, and fourteen hundred and fifty nine nights…For this is the end of examinations…For this is the beginning of the real test…”