One of the things that sticks in my mind from school is a professor I had who could recite volumes of his favorite poetry verbatim. He would recite Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats at the drop of a hat and his face would glow with warmth and excitement. Another teacher of mine from grade school told me about an elderly man he met on an airplane once who just began spouting poetry from his youth with such emotion and accuracy that my teacher was in awe of him. I’ve often wondered about this aspect of poetry, not only reading it, but memorizing it, truly imbibing the essence of a poem until it flows from your own lips effortlessly. So I’ve tried in the last year or so to do some of it myself.
You may wonder, what’s the point? Well, poetry is not dead. In fact, dropping some Yeats poetry in a pub in Dublin is the quickest way to get street credit in the Emerald Isle. Those Irish know how to venerate their writers! No joke, I actually know someone who saw two guys in a Dublin pub get into a fist fight over whether Yeats was the greatest poet that ever lived or not. I’ve memorized some Yeats, Shakespeare, and even a little Whitman, and have been enriched by it ever since.
It’s definitely not a piece of cake, and if you really love a poem, you have to use it in your everyday life. Like language, if you learn it now and don’t use it later you’ll gradually forget about it. It may sound strange, but many a mantra of a Shakespearean sonnet or a line from Whitman has gotten me through a rough day at work or an unsavory chore at home. So give it a try. Writers write, they read, and they can even recite. It’s a gift you can take with you anywhere at any time at any age. What poetry will you commit to memory?