“Always learn poems by heart. They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.”
– White Oleander, Janet Fitch
I used to memorise sections of Howl or poems by Wordsworth before going to sleep, and it would let me drift off in an orderly, methodical way.
After memorising a certain poem, it would then come up at unexpected moments during the day. I’d recall certain lines when on a long train journey through the English countryside, or perhaps before meeting a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time.
In my introductory lecture to English at university, the lecturer advised us to “memorise as much poetry as you can whilst you’re young – it’ll give you something to do if you get put in prison”. It got a lot of laughs, and created a great deal of awkwardness among the other lecturers, but it made sense.
Literature is cathartic, and gives you a direct insight into someone else’s suffering or joy. After memorising select passages, they seem to arise naturally at the appropriate time.
I was watching Pearl Harbour last night, and for some reason I couldn’t get King Lear out of my head: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, — They kill us for their sport”.
Poems to memorise for life
A poem for love: Ben Okri, I Held You in the Square
“I held you in the square/And felt the evening/Re-order itself around /Your smile […]”
A poem for heartache: Pablo Neruda, Tonight I Can Write
“[…] Tonight I can write the saddest lines./ To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her”
A poem for depression: Sylvia Plath, Tulips
“The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here./ Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in […]”
A poem for joy: William Blake, The Angel that presided o’er my birth
You can find something for any emotion or situation, which is probably what most draws me to poetry. Perhaps memorising passages satisfies my obsessive-compulsive side somewhat, but there’s also a sense of security that comes through having an arsenal of poetry for when things aren’t great. And it gives my brain a little workout.
Which poems have you memorised? Do they come to mind unexpectedly?