Poems off by heart

Several months ago, I resolved to learn a number of poems off by heart.

Poetry has a big place in my day-to-day life and I’m always trying to share lines from my favourite poems with others. I’ve long admired those people who have an extensive poetry library on the tip of their tongues and, while, yes, the internet is wonderful for finding half-remembered lines, typing and tapping does tend to take you out of the moment. Rote learning may have lost favour in education circles but most everyone I know can still reel off the poems of our schooldays, so I returned to basics in my attempts to expand my portable poetry archive.

I selected several of the poems I have returned to time and again but from which I couldn’t quote fluently and copied them down by hand on my favourite bright paper. And then I just started carrying these (soon wrinkled!) scraps of paper around with me. I pop one in my pocket when I take the dog for a long walk and, instead of getting frustrated when she feels the need to stop and sniff at all the interesting mile-markers, I now run over the lines while I try to avoid looking too closely at whatever has caught her attention. I stick the poems to the fridge so that they catch my eye each time I open the door. I have them as the screensaver on my computer, I have a copy in the car to look at if I’m waiting to collect someone, I use one as my current bookmark.

While I’m very strict in determining when I actually ‘know’ a poem, all the exposure to beautiful words has added up to a lovely kind of pleasure that poetry has been a tangible force in my life this year. And that feels good.

Here’s what I’m working on at the moment:

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

(The Book of Hours, Book 1, Poem 1, Stanza 1)

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me – a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.

Denise Levertov

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