Jeremy Pataky | Committed to Memory

This year’s National Poetry Month poster showed up in the mail, sent from the Academy of American Poets. It celebrates not just poetry, but “the important and enriching role that letter writing has played in the lives of poets.”
It’s a good reminder of that kinship between poems and letters – I think of the correspondences between Duncan and Levertov, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Olson and Creely. I think of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I first read when I was pretty young. Later on in grad school, Joanna Klink assigned Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne, a collection of letters he wrote in 1907 to his wife, Clara. It’s a book I’ll re-read, no doubt learning more about how to pay close attention and how to describe what I see (not to mention Cezanne’s paintings. And how to write a letter.)
Everyone loves getting a “real” letter. Maybe I will write some letters, and wait for a few responses to roll in, and enjoy the particular anticipation it elicits. Maybe I’ll get my cardboard box of old letters down from the closet shelf tonight and read a few to stir up some memories.
One of these posters hangs on the door in the 49 Writers classroom. The adjacent walls sport old photographs of a young dirt-streets Anchorage along with color shots of aerobatic ravens (harkening back to the earlier “Raven Place” days before we relocated to the current building). Maybe the need to take a whole month (complete with annual posters) to remind people that poetry exists and is worthwhile indicates how marginalized it is among the genres. Not dead, just marginal. Were they going for irony when they designated April, that month called “the cruelest month” by Eliot, as Poetry Month? Cruel, shmuel. Personally, I love the month.
If a whole poetry month is a bit daunting, rest assured: we also have a day-sized sub-holiday or two coming up. Like Poem in Your Pocket Day, which is April 18, according to a flier that came with the poster. “On Poem in Your Pocket Day,” it says, “select a poem you love, carry it with you, and share it with others throughout the day.” Poem in my pocket?
Sure, I thought, wondering, “Would carrying one there and not sharing it but posting Broadsided broadsides around anonymously instead count?”
And then I realized—there actually is a poem in my pocket, already, tucked into my wallet – tattered now, it’s been there for years. “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow,” begins Roethke’s “The Waking”. “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go….” I have shared it with people on a few occasions. I started carrying it around to memorize it. Once I had managed to glue it into the brainy regions, it began doing its work on me, cropping up when I was hiking, or driving, or, yeah, waking.
Try it. Cache a poem in your wallet (or in your pocket, if you will keep it around for more than just a day). Return to it often. Forget the sharing it around part, at first, and just learn it. Be careful not to launder it. Say it in the shower. Say it in the woods. Say it on your excavator, in the elevator when you’re alone, there, say it in a house, with a mouse, here or there, over and again until you’ve got it. Be open to the synaptic practice. Beware, but don’t be scared: your mind will rewire just slightly, learning a new way of thought like awkward fingers that can barely manage a guitar chord and then, one day… bam.
I won’t be offended if you seek a second opinion. See if one of the 375,000 kids who competed this year in the Poetry Out Loud contest will write you the same prescription. And give this short Dan Beachy-Quick interview a listen. He speaks personally and well to the value of memorization, and to his own practice of it. He starts by writing the poem out longhand. If you think paper went the way of compact discs or rotary dial (it hasn’t, quite), maybe you’ll find this new app released by Penguin to be useful.
I never got around to making a New Year’s resolution this year. Or if I did, I promptly forgot it. So in lieu of that I resolve to retire the tattered villanelle that has lived in my wallet for too long, now, and to replace it with another poem to memorize, and to say it out loud while I’m walking the trails, traversing parking lots, scratching my head while I’m figuring out how to build a deck on the cabin this summer. Maybe I’ll sit on that freshly-done deck and take up letter writing again. As for the memorizing—join me. I’ll say you mine if you say me yours.
Jeremy Pataky earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana. His work has been accepted for publication
Black Warrior ReviewColorado ReviewThe Southeast ReviewCirqueIce Floe, and many other literary journals, anthologies, and newspapers. He lives and writes in Anchorage and McCarthy and serves as a board member of 49 Writers.

4 thoughts on “Jeremy Pataky | Committed to Memory”

  1. How I love the Poem in the Pocket notion.
    There's one in my briefcase that I'm going to pull out and recommit to memory.
    Such an excellent morsel this morning.

  2. I agree about the value of memorizing poetry. My Dad introduced me to poetry when I was young with "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner". Since that time, I've felt that the prose I've committed to memory have enriched my life. One other helpful method of going about the memorization of poetry is through the free web app

  3. Really enjoyed this Jeremy, thank you. My totem poem is "Nothing Lasts," by Jane Hirshfield. Next time we see each other, let's swap recitations!

  4. There is also great benefit in memorizing one's own poems. After being impressed with Elizabeth L Thompson who has committed about 36 long poems to memory, and after, two years ago, accidentally stepping out of a spot light where I could not read the paper I held, compounded by an inability to find and re-enter the spotlight, plus the difficulty on another occasion of holding a mic in one hand, poems in the other and having no way to turn a page… after all this, I committed about seven poems to memory. Took about 100 repetitions of each poem to do it.

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