In the Deep Heart’s Core: A Festival of Poetry

In the Deep Heart’s Core: A Festival of Poetry

"Alice in Wonderland" by George Dunlop Leslie
“Alice in Wonderland” by George Dunlop Leslie

I’ve been collecting these various links for a while, wanting to share them, but waiting until I had a proper number. Three links is a very proper number: neither too few nor too many. And so now I’ll set this little collection of links about poems adrift. Because who doesn’t need more poetry in their life?

1. Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies
A guide for the perplexed

These are delightful suggestions. The sort of thing that should be covered in any poetry class. Perfect for novice readers and “experts” alike. A sort of Zen of poetry as well as a very practical guide.

3. Try to meet a poem on its terms not yours. If you have to “relate” to a poem in order to understand it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. In other words, don’t try to fit the poem into your life. Try to see what world the poem creates. Then, if you are lucky, its world will help you re-see your own.

12. A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding. And sometimes understanding never comes. It’s the same with being alive: Wonder and confusion mostly prevail.

13. Perform marginalia. Reading without writing in the margins is like walking without moving your arms. You can do it and still reach your destination, but it’ll always feel like you’re missing something essential about the activity.

18. The very best way to read a poem is perhaps to be young, intelligent, and slightly drunk. There is no doubt, however, that reading poems in old age cultivates a desire to have read more poems in youth.

19. Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value. They are rooms that take up such little room. A memorized poem, or a line or two, becomes part internal jewelry and part life-saving skill, like knowing how to put a mugger in an arm-lock or the best way to cut open a mango without slicing your hand.

20. Reading a good poem doesn’t give you something to talk about. It silences you. Reading a great poem pushes further. It prepares you for the silence that perplexes us all: death.

2. The Joy of the Memorized Poem, an interview with poet Billy Collins.

William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is about the allure of an imagined refuge. The poem’s distressed urban speaker fantasizes about fleeing the city and retreating to an idyllic Irish island; his fervid mantra is “I will arise and go.” For Billy Collins, author of Aimless Love, poetry itself is that sanctuary, a place to seek peace when times are tough. In our conversation for this series, he explained why the poems he memorizes become like cherished companions—and how he’s relied on Yeats especially in times of trouble.

One of the disadvantages of poetry over popular music is that if you write a pop song, it naturally gets into people’s heads as they listen in the car. You don’t have to memorize a Paul Simon song; it’s just in your head, and you can sing along. With a poem, you have to will yourself to memorize it. That’s what happened to me with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I knew the poem well—through many re-readings and through teaching it in my classes—but at some point, I remember thinking “I’ve just going to get this poem down.” This process—going from deep familiarity to complete mastery—is a challenge and a great pleasure. In repeating different lines, your reading becomes more focused than you’ve ever had before. You become more sensitive to every consonant and vowel.

When you internalize a poem, it becomes something inside of you. You’re able to walk around with it. It becomes a companion. And so you become much less objective in your judgment of it. If anyone criticizes the poem, they’re criticizing something you take with you, all the time.

Unlike prose which is complete, linear headlong movement forward—a poem is a design that displaces silence on the page. You can look at it as a thing to wander in. You can say every other line. You can play with the design by getting inside its structure. When you’re in duress, as I was in the MRI, you can put the poem to all kinds of diagrammatic uses.

3. 10 British Actors Read 10 British Poems

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  • It’s true. If you memorize something, it changes the inside of your head. It becomes part of your mental furniture, and a lens through which you view the world. I think about how the Desert Fathers would memorize all the Psalms and all the Gospels- what a good, good way to live with the Word of God!

    I was reciting The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, to your sister last week, and we were talking a bit about how poetry, any good writing really, gives you the words for things you didn’t have words for on your own. Sproinging briskly off that thought, that’s one of the main functions of liturgy, too- giving you words when your own are inadequate.

    • Oh yes. Very much so about the psalms. I’ve got quite a bit of them down after more than a decade of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. I’d like to formally memorize them– I remember Katherine Johnson blogging about doing that a few years ago– but I get hung up on the idea that they will eventually issue a new translation of the breviary and I’ll have to learn the new ones. So I’m holding out for that. As soon as it comes out though, I’m going to set out to memorize all the psalms and canticles in the LotH.

      Truly the bits and pieces I know have changed the way I see the world, how I approach not only God but other people too. I find them on my tongue so often. And I was delighted last night to hear Sophie playing around with a phrase, wondering aloud what “feathers of iron” meant. I had explain it was fetters not feathers. And I explained that fetters were chains that hold prisoners. But the nice thing was that phrase was rattling about in her head even though we hadn’t listened to that particular psalm that day. It’s one of the Sunday Week I psalms, in fact. I don’t recall if it repeats during the week.

      I so often forget to do formal catechesis and forget to sit down and read the Bible, but I’m comforted that my kids are absorbing the Word nonetheless just by hearing the divine office day after day, week after week, season after season. It’s not a conscious thing for them, it’s just the rhythm of life. They don’t pay attention every day or perhaps even most days. But it’s there, part of the atmosphere, just like the poetry. They love it because it’s familiar. It’s familiar because it’s a habit. Every time I’m tempted to let it slide, it pulls me back in. I can’t not pray it because it’s a lifeline now.

      And yes so much yes about how both poetry and stories give you a vocabulary, a mental landscape too. We learn compassion for those who are different when we read stories with protagonists who see the world differently than we do. We learn how to speak, how to think, when our minds are crammed with poetry we learn how to live.

      And that’s precisely why the divine office is called the School of Prayer. It teaches us how to address God, how to form the right intentions. How to praise Him, how to ask Him for help, how to complain too. It’s got it all. And it teaches us Who God is. I know I have a much, much better idea of Him since I’ve begun praying the office as a regular thing. Sunday Mass does it a bit, but it’s not often enough.

  • Thank you so much for the links, I have listened repeatedly to the British poem link along with my daughters.

    Also, while searching for World War I info after reading In Flanders Fields, I came across a BBC documentary on Wilfred Owen that is interesting and I thought you might like (a little intense for children though)

    Wishing you the best of luck with your home school adventures and please keep up the posts,

    An appreciate reader,

    • Amy, Oh thank you for the link to the Owens documentary. I’d forgotten about this blog post and your comment has led me to wander back and re-read the essays I linked to here. Thanks for the little reminder. Best of luck to you and yours.