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Memorizing Poetry; An Update

I began memorizing poems last spring and have, to date, memorized eight poems, most of them short, one quite long (“Daffodils” by William Wordsworth), all of them chosen for their linguistic beauty. I find it easiest to tackle two lines at a time though sometimes I work on the entire verse if that makes more sense to me. I let my brain decide. I carry a hard copy of the poem around with me while I am working on it and, when I think I’ve got it down, I paste the poem into my Common Book ( a book of quotations).

It’s a very pleasurable exercise for several reasons: 1./ Like meditation, it keeps me firmly in the moment. If I let my mind drift ahead, I forget the line I’m reciting. 2./ I feel close to the poet’s process. I’ve memorized two of Emily Dickinson’s poems, for example. I remember well being asked in junior high school to read some of her poems. I didn’t understand a word of them and, in college, thought them trite and simple. Not true. I now understand her genius. I’ve traced the lines she encoded with my mind and it’s as though I am encoding them with her. I suppose this is similar to an art student re-creating a masterpiece as an exercise. And 3./ Poems slow me down and insist on attention to detail in a small space. This is good discipline for a prose writer. (For the record, I do write poetry myself , and have even had some published but, for some reason, do not consider myself a poet.)

Which leads me to visual vs. auditory streams. In my experience, most poets “think” in images and hold words and lines in their heads with ease as they declaim them. I have memorized poems by writing them out numerous times, and then trying to recite them. Though I assume I have learned the poem, I stumble. That’s because I need the visual cue to continue. If I write the line and then say it, I’m okay. But if I have no paper and pen to hand, I don’t do as well.

I asked a neuroscientist friend about this and she said that my auditory stream is weak and that, if I want to strengthen it, I have to memorize the poem by ear, not by sight.

I thought about this for a while and wondered if it makes any difference to me. It doesn’t. Any way I commit the poems to memory is fine with me. Very fine indeed. Read More 
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I do not usually blow hard in my blog but blow I must this morning. A Haitian-American student of mine lost her niece and her best friend. And that’s all she knows right now and she is just one person. Two relief worker friends are on their way to Haiti—both contributors to my book, “Another Day in Paradise.” They were packing suitcases last night and getting their affairs in order, saying goodbye to loved ones, as we were all watching the Golden Globes. The real world—not ersatz reality shows—is drama enough.

I had watched “The Hurt Locker” yesterday afternoon and then turned on the Golden Globes for relaxation but it was so insipid I could not relax. However, I do have to thank Nicole Kidman. When she appeared, she immediately pointed to her Haiti ribbon and said a few words about donation and George Clooney’s telethon. The MC—name soon lost into oblivion—had not even mentioned Haiti and was drinking beer. George Clooney did decide to come despite overwhelming preparations for his telethon, someone said. Alec Baldwin was not there; he was at a charity event in Canada. Thank you.

It was a sparkly, gazillion dollar affair, nearly pornographic in its disregard of the human suffering just south of our borders.

I had not made my money contribution as yet. My relief worker friends had suggested Doctors Without Borders or the American Red Cross. Both organizations are solid and well established in Haiti. So many people do want to help that the situation on the ground can be very chaotic with so many NGO’s turning up. So, best to go with the established organizations.

I donated to Internews this morning: http://www.internews.org/ I had heard their CEO on NPR talking about the media infrastructure in Haiti—there are/were about 40 radio stations in that small spit of land—and citizens rely on them for accurate information. Knowledge is power in such a catastrophe and helps to sustain civil society which is fast collapsing in an already collapsed, impoverished country.

If I could pray I would pray for the survivors in Haiti. At the very least, I wish them all courage and fortitude as they rebuild their country.

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It’s not unusual for biographers to take ten years to research and write a book. They are patient and meticulous people who, in my experience, have smaller egos than the writers they are studying. Yet, the books they write often become seminal and long lasting, referred to, with thanks, by subsequent biographers, and glued to the shelves in every literary scholar’s library for as long as the shelves remain standing.

I’ve just finished reading Carol Sklenicka’s outstanding biography of Raymond Carver and went to hear her speak at a Barnes & Noble in New York on January 4th. She began the project ten years ago when she was teaching freshman composition at Marquette University. She liked Carver’s stories and searched for a biography of him, but there was none. And so she got to work. She interviewed everyone still alive who knew him, read all the archival material, and all the extant drafts of the stories and poems.

In a way, it is a miracle that Raymond Carver created a body of work that is so memorable and so important in the history of the American short story. He was very ill with alcohol for much of his writing life and, when he got sober in 1977, he kept himself medicated with marijuana. But he was also driven and disciplined, more so, of course, when he got sober and then met the poet, Tess Gallagher, who became his second wife. They were a productive writing couple to the end of Carver’s too-short life. She now controls his literary estate.

As for the biographer herself, she’s a very good writer. The book is a page turner and reads like a novel. All the sordid details—pernicious alcoholism, abandonment of Carver’s first wife and children in his will, the “usurpation” of Carver’s early stories by his Esquire editor, Gordon Lish—are in the book, as well as a clear analysis of the stories themselves. Was he a minimalist? A dirty realist? No, Sklenicka says, a better word would be “precisionist.”

The collected stories have now been re-issued on acid free paper in a Modern Library edition. I’ve bought it for my “physical” library. Many are the original worked versions of the stories before Gordon Lish appropriated them. I’m reading one a day and savoring their genius. Carol Sklenicka’s book is also by my side, in my Kindle.


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