“ . . . committing a poem is a form of self love, like buying yourself a gift, only better. And no one can take it away from you.” — Julia Spicher Kasdorf
One never knows when a certain editor might start to crack a dare, so it’s good to never let one’s guard down. But there I was on Saturday morning—just sitting on a bench outside our cottage, enjoying the warm breeze as it wafted through the palms. I was watching tiny geckos, snapping a few pictures, and trying to track down what I was pretty sure were parrots or parakeets.
Minding my own business, mind you, without a dare care in the world. But when I went inside to brew some tea, I opened up my email.
“Hey there, are you feeling ready for a new #poetrydare?”
Shoot. I thought I’d be safe once I sneaked cross-country from Michigan to Florida and went into hiding with the poet’s protection program. But wouldn’t you know they tracked me down. Maybe they followed the M&M trail. They’re tricky. These people know I can’t say no to a dare.
“You know I’m the daredevil queen, ” I write back. “What do you have up your sleeve?”
I’m thinking of some new poet to fall in love with. Read some poems. Write about them. Maybe write one. Piece of cake. But no. They’re resurrecting an old flame.
“We’re thinking about poetry memorization.”
I unroll my own sleeves.
“And we are thinking you are not yet done with T.S. Eliot. Or perhaps he is not done with you. And so we would like you to go back to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and commit it to memory.”
Say what? I’m going to commit “Prufrock”?
The editor directs me to a piece on poetry memorization by Julia Kasdorf. (Okay, this is getting weird. I found myself in Julia Kasdorf’s workshop at a writers retreat a few years back when there were no openings left in any of the other workshops. I would not have chosen poetry.)
Kasdorf says she makes all of her students memorize poems.
“The poem must be at least 14 lines long, previously published, no song lyrics. They must judge it a great poem worthy of the effort. ‘Find one you love so much you want it to be part of your bodies, ’ I tell them. A piece of art you want to own.”
There are 131 lines in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, ” not counting the introductory six lines of Italian. Do I have to memorize something I can’t even pronounce?
I’m wondering why they chose “Prufrock” anyway. Is it because “I grow old… I grow old…”? (I did wear my capris rolled the other day.) It feels as though I’m starting to lose my mind in this process of moving, and since memorizing poetry is apparently good for keeping one’s mind, are they just trying to help me find and save mine?
Well, I’ll show them. If a shy college kid “in a ball cap who had barely ever talked” can present the entire “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to his whole class, I can do this thing and present it to the whole Internet. (Gulp.) Besides, I’m kind of on vacation with nothing else to do, and I’ve enlisted my Poetry Barista Sisters in Mischief, Donna Falcone and Bethany Rohde, to coach me, because any poetry barista worth her sugar should be able to be counted on to keep me well nourished with toast and tea, and maybe some sliced peaches.
“Do I dare” and “do I dare?”
Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, Sandra will update us on her progress and strategies. Stay tuned on Facebook and/or Twitter, where she’ll feature live video updates. We’ve given Sandra the option to Phone a Friend, so be prepared in case she calls on you to help with some Italian pronunciations or to learn a little about a part of the poem, or even to recite a stanza with her. And for those who want to Commit Prufrock with Sandra in this new Poetry Dare scheme, we’ll be introducing fun, illustrated Barista Badges so she and you can celebrate and share your achievements with the world.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish