Memorize?

A couple of weeks ago, I read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, and I’m one chapter short of finishing her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club now. As the Peck Professor of Literature and Memoir at Syracuse University, she offers expert tips and provides an appendix of must-read memoirs. The list is so worth the purchase for those interested in studying the genre.

In Chapter 19, “Old School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr encourages intellectual enterprises to keep you studying the craft of writing. Here are some of the tools she uses to learn from mentor texts. Some of these include writing longhand. She says it will slow you down as typing can’t.

  1. Keep a notebook, where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose. Nothing will teach you of great writers’ choices better. Plus, you can carry your inspiration around in compact form.
  2. Write reviews or criticism for an online blog or a magazine. It will discipline you to find evidence for your opinions and make you a crisper thinker.
  3. Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions.
  4. Write out longhand on 3×5” index cards quotes you come across, writer’s name on the left, source and page on the right. Karr has thousands of these from which she cobbles up lectures.
  5. Memorize poems when you’re stuck.
  6. Write longhand letters to your complicated characters or even to the dead. You’ll learn more about voice by writing letters, how you arrange yourself different ways for each audience, than in a year of classes.

Number Five spoke loudest to me. Funny how I can still remember chunks of verse from days gone by. I memorized the “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost in the eighth grade for my English class. Anytime I take another look at that poem, the words come flooding back. When I taught sophomores, I memorized Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” funeral oration from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. And when I taught juniors, I memorized Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy. Because the students had been tasked to memorize, I wanted to prove I could do it. I loved to show them a three-year-old’s ability to memorize, too. Here’s a toddler’s version of “Litany” by Billy Collins.


Here’s one I’m working on, at Mary Karr’s suggestion and just because I love it:

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
by e.e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Villanelle

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The crack is moving down the wall.
Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

It’s mildly cheering to recall
That every building has its little flaws.
The crack is moving down the wall.

Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,
We can accept the damndest laws.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

And though there’s no one here at all,
One searches every room because
The crack is moving down the wall.

Repairs? But how can one begin?
The lease has warnings buried in each clause.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
The sort of thing that gives one pause.
The crack is moving down the wall.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

Weldon Keys

I stumbled upon the villanelle form in my book Staying Alive for my summer poetry class. My class is mainly poetry appreciation intended to inspire poetry of my own. I quite like Weldon Keys “Villanelle.” Sometimes cracks are visible, and for whatever reason, we often seem to wait for the roof to crash. As for my own poems, I have my work cut out for me, nothing ready to share.

The villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and ending with a quatrain (four-line stanza). The first and third lines of the opening tercet recur alternately at the ends of the other tercets and with both repeated at the end of the closing quatrain. Some of the tercets above might look a wee bit, um, janky (with a fourth line) via phone. On my laptop, they come across as intended. 

Probably the most famous villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Who knew that this one is a villanelle? I did not. You are welcome.

If you have a minute and a half, here is Thomas reciting his poem in 1952, a year before his untimely death at age 39. For Dylan’s text, click here.

Source:
Staying Alive, ed Neil Astley, Miramax Books, 2003.

 

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Source: Being Alive, ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2004