Monday, March 14, 2016

March 14: The body remembers

Do you think about poetry? What's the first poem you remember*? 

Until fairly recently I would have told you that poetry wasn't really a part of my life any more. Sure, I did my time in school: memorized the obligatory Wordsworth in Grade 6, confronted Marvell's coy mistress and Arnold's shingled beach in Grade 12, spent time with Williams' red wheelbarrow in university. But there's no time for poetry when you're late for the bus and you have deadlines to meet and hey, dinner isn't going to cook itself.

And yet.

Buses and deadlines and dinner notwithstanding, I always have scraps of poetry running through my head. It's a rare day that I don't conjure the line "had we but world enough and time," when I walk home through the cemetery, and this time of year always puts me in mind of the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales – I can't wait for "Aprille's shoures soote." (April showers, May flowers – we all know that song.) 

As it turns out, there are little scraps of poems, rhyming couplets, stray stanzas scattered throughout my mind the same way that I've scattered tchotchkes around my apartment. Some of them are silly – "Alligator pie" is right up there with my tiny hand-painted garden gnome as far as utility, but they never fail to make me laugh – and others more serious. Some of them have become touchstones for me – words as familiar and comforting as the smooth beach pebbles that I've carried from home to home, or my oldest and most cherished needlework tools.

I didn't really realize it until I went on a few dates with a fellow recovering English major. What to talk about, when the local game of "who do you know?" resolves itself within two degrees and three blocks of home, and talk of grad school politics is too depressing? You need a different lingua franca: in this case, eventually, poetry. Build a foundation with Beowulf and Chaucer, ignore Shakespeare for the most part (even though you could spend a week or two just on common idiom, never mind the puns), hurtle though the 18th century, and then ensconce yourselves in the modern era, with your Larkin (too bleak for me), your Bishop, your Oliver and Alexander. You can learn a lot about someone by their choice of personal poet laureate, it turns out.

(I prefer the latter three; I'm a god in the details person, it's the professional noticers for me.)

And now the poems are flooding back, and the workaday turns of phrase that occupy my nine-to-five aren't at all sufficient. I'm picking up poetry books again and revelling in poetry podcasts (oh! if only these had existed when I was in university, way back in the last century). Where once poems seemed mostly like wordplay to me (rhyme and meter; fun and games), now I experience the emotion more clearly; every time a phrase comes back to me it gains a bit more resonance. Now I see how poems can be living things.

(Attention without only a report," said Mary Oliver in this interview. It is one of the most thoughtful things I've ever heard and well worth a listen.)

*My first poem: Winnie-the-Pooh's Tiddly-Pom Song, of course...tied with The Cremation of Sam McGee.


  1. Interesting question. The earliest poem I can remember from childhood is Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat, but the first poem that came to mind when I read your post was a French poem - Déjeuner du Matin by Jacques Prevert that I had to learn by heart in about grade 8 or 9. Which then reminds me of another Prevert piece - Le Jardin which was the subject of my first ever class at university which is still quite clear in my memory, over 20 years later.

  2. ha, we totally had to memorize portions of the Cremation of Sam McGee in school, I think I still recall the first 4-5 stanzas! I adore poetry (of course). I love how it gives words to the things that are so difficult to describe in prose.

  3. I think professional noticer is the best description I have heard of a poet yet. The two I remember from childhood are The Song of Wandering Aengus by WB Yeats and Sea Fever by John Masefield. I learnt these off by heart, not because I was told to, but because I loved the roll of the words in my mouth.


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