Poems by Heart

Poems by Heart

Seascape by Anton Melbye

As I’m reading Omeros, I’ve also been reading a bit about Derek Walcott, curious about his life an influences and such. This piece from Caribbean Beat has some interesting details. It seems he lived in Boston for some years, teaching at Harvard and later at Boston University. I like the image here of him causing a stir with Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky.

Walcott, Brodksy and Heaney, a formidable literary trio, have been known to cause quite a stir when in merry mood at Chef Chang’s Chinese restaurant in Boston; a hopeless cook, Walcott eats out a lot at nearby restaurants (he doesn’t drive), sharing lunch with his students over shish kebab at the Kangaroo Café, breakfasting at Dunkin Donuts, insisting on lentil soup at the Busy Bee or sandwiches at the Greek-owned snack bar he calls “The Greeks”. The one consolation of winter in Boston seems to be that Walcott gets to wear the Russian fur hat that Brodsky gave him.

But it was this that really caught my eye:

One graduate of Walcott’s sessions told the British press that Walcott began his first class by attacking the would-be poets in front of him, demanding to know why they thought anyone would ever want to read their work. Then he asked each student to write down from memory a poem, any poem, that he knew: not one could. Walcott’s scorn hurt, but was unanswerable.

It certainly doesn’t sound very nice to be attacked, although sometimes the best teachers aren’t very nice. My favorite English teacher in high school took as her motto, “No fun.” And yet her class was one of the best and was often rather fun, though it was also hard work. Without further evidence I’d like to assume Walcott’s “attack” was of the constructive sort. Putting myself into his students’ shoes, I would, in any case, have been able to write down a poem had I been in that class. Or several. I definitely know at least a handful of poems well enough to write down the words, though I wouldn’t be sure about punctuation and line breaks and the like.

I started reciting a handful of the shorter ones to myself, the ones I was pretty sure I could write down. Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar is one I memorized who knows when, elementary school, junior high, high school? Anyway, I recite it to myself from time to time and to the children too.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

And then another one of ancient memory is Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Requiem. I’ve been remembering because Bella has been reading a Rumer Godden novel called Home Is the Sailor; but it also is a short one and easy to write down.

UNDER the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

And then there’s Emily Dickinson:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

It seems I am attracted to poems about death. I have others tucked away in my memory no doubt. Some of more recent memory, some older. Tonnes of nursery rhymes, of course, the ordinary canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours. And many snippets, lines, verses of longer poems, of half-remembered poems, or Shakespeare.

What poems do you have by heart?

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  • By heart, I know Jabberwocky, and Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10” (“Death, be not proud”), and Psalm 95 by now.

    I bet there are some more that I could rattle off if prompted by the first line. Certainly there are some short ones like that — Dickinson, perhaps. There was a time when I could recite all of “Kubla Khan” and “Holy Sonnet XIV” (“Batter my heart, three-personed God”) but I tried them just now and they peter out in the middle.

    • Oh I have Jabberwocky. I used to have Death be not proud, but I think I’ve lost most of it. Definitely Psalm 95 (and the Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis).

      Kublai Khan I think I only ever had the first stanza or two, Batter my heart, I know I had some lines of but I’m not sure I had it all.

      I used to have all of The Highwayman, but it peters out. The Lady of Shalott, too.

      Here, Billy Collins starts to see apropos: Forgetfulness.

  • Does it count if it’s in German?
    I started a “poem book” when I was twelve, and collected poems I liked. There I can see my handwriting evolve from the twelve-year old until today.
    Well, by heart:
    Rilke: Der Panther, Spätherbst in Venedig (Late Autumn in Venice); Die Parke II (about the parks in Versailles)
    Kästner: Die Entwicklung der Menschheit (Development of humanity); Sachliche Romanze (Romance; matter of fact)….
    I do not suppose you should know any of them, but I love, love, love reciting poems and everybody around me thinks that is strange. So I had to comment 🙂

    • Yes. Totally counts. One of my poems by heart is in French. And I used to know a Catullus poem in Latin and the opening lines of The Aeneid in Latin.

      I know Rilke’s The Panther in translation, but my sister is the German scholar in the family. I opted for Latin and French with a smattering of Greek and Irish.

  • Love this and so agree. My earliest poems by heart were from When We Were Very Young by A A Milne. They segued nursery rhymes to verse- ‘Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity’ to ‘James James Morrison Morrison’.
    At school I had a teacher who loved what she called choral verse as well as choral singing. Our class could recite The Enchanted Shirt by John Hay (and others). I remember almost all of it, including that we whispered this line, paused there, the boys said that verse, the girls this etc.
    In French we learned La Fourmi by Robert Desnos, which I still remember.

    At Uni l acquired lots of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and Yeats’ shorter ones by memory, eg ‘When you are old and grey’ and ‘Though you are in your shining days’ and ‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree’. I loved Middle English lyrics and still have ‘I syng of a mayden’. Oh, and the beginning of The Canterbury Tales ‘Whan that Aprille’ but I don’t get very far now. I think I absorbed these by constant exposure rather than effort. Likewise I’ve absorbed many psalms and scripture eg from the Song of Songs ‘Arise my love, my fair one,’ and from Isaiah, ‘Is this not the fast that pleases me’. We had those as our wedding readings.

    I have consciously tried to learn Shakespeare’s sonnets eg 73 -and favourites from George Herbert eg ‘Prayer the church’s banquet’. And James K Baxter and Donne and.. It is so lovely to have that library, always at hand, in your head.

    • Oh lucky. I didn’t discover Milne’s verse until I had kids of my own. For that matter, I don’t think I even read all of the Pooh stories until I had Bella. When I was a child I had a little set of tiny hardbound books each with one story in it and those are the only Pooh I remember except for the Disney. Then when I was in college a friend gave a box set of me the Complete Winnie the Pooh stories and the Complete Christopher Robin poems. But even then I don’t think I actually sat down to read them. But then Bella and I discovered Pooh and Milne’s poetry together and there’s a magic in that too.

      I love Middle English lyrics. My Medieval Poetry class was one of my favorites in college. I syng of a mayden is a favorite of mine too. And I did at one point have a good bit of the Canterbury Tales Prologue. Now I’m good if I can get the first three lines.

      One of my favorite college literature professors had an eye condition and went blind for a time of several months. She wrote a beautiful essay about the healing power of poetry and how much of a gift it was to have that library in her head, that poetry by heart, that she could recite to herself. I wish I still had a copy of that essay, it’s one of my favorite things ever. It might even be in a box somewhere…. at one point it was online, but the website that hosted it disappeared long ago.

  • I learned some Shakespeare in middle school – I probably still have half of Hamlet’s soliloquy and half of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), and bits of sonnets.

    Most of the rest of my poetic knowledge (in the sense of memorized poetry) is relatively small snippets or hymns (I get credit for being a decent singer just because I already know the hymns so I sing them despite spending most of Mass wrestling with littles). I’m starting family circle time (kids are in public school, so it’s short), and I want to do some poetry memorization alongside the kids.