I didn’t take much time to wonder, “Do I dare, and do I dare” when the editor suggested I memorize The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
The whole poem.
All of it.
I immediately bit the matter off with a smile because I’ve never met a dare I didn’t like, at least a Tweetspeak dare, and I knew it would be worthwhile. (More about that in a future post.) But how should I begin? And now, how can I pick up the pace and complete the matter so there’s time for more poetry dares before I grow old or sprout a bald spot in the middle of my head?
I finally settled on six weapons to finish off Prufrock—I mean, to complete this dare—and they each begin with the letter “R.”
First, I read the whole poem. All of it. Several times. I read it out loud so I didn’t miss even a drop of its juice. I savored. I listened for repeated sounds and words and phrases and rhymes. I let my mind soak up images—a patient lying on an operating table under the stars, a bunch of men in grayed t-shirts hanging out of windows puffing on their pipes, Prufrock (I haven’t been able to give him a face) in white flannel trousers with peach juice dripping down his chin, mermaids riding waves while they comb their hair. Later I went ahead and read about the poem and how others approached it. Of course, that sent me off on rabbit trails.
Speaking of images… back in the day when I worked as a community health educator, I taught medical terminology to non-medical hospital employees using word association. The Memorise site offers ideas on using creative images to help you memorize text.
I’m not getting any younger, so all of Prufrock’s references to time stir something in me. I think many see this poem as dark and dreary. Maybe it is. But I tend to giggle a lot when I read it. I find myself drinking more tea and craving buttered toast and peaches. I like to sit outside on a dim, foggy morning and remember my past while I wonder what’s ahead.
After I spent some time reading the poem and sitting with it, I began to work on the separate stanzas. I read a stanza several times before I begin to work on each line. I repeat the line over and over until I can say it without peeking. Then I do the same with the second line. Then I do both lines together before I move on to the third, then all three together before the fourth.
Writing a stanza out by hand, pencil or pen on paper, helps seal the words. Sometimes I type it, and I just found this nifty memorization tool where you can cut and paste text into a blank space. You work with that until you’re comfortable, and then you move on to another screen that gives you only the first letters of each word. The next screen gives you just the first words of each line. I’m also finding it helps to cut and paste those screens into a blank document and type in the rest of the text.
In other words this:
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
F__ I h___ k____ t___ a__ a______, k____ t___ a__:
H___ k____ t__ e_______, m_______, a_________,
I h___ m_______ o__ m_ l___ w___ c_____ s_____;
I k___ t__ v_____ d____ w___ a d____ f___
B______ t__ m____ f___ a f______ r___.
S_ h__ s_____ I p______?
which becomes this,
Using this technique will help me pick up my pace considerably.
The other day I leaned on the fence and recited my current verse to two turtles (mama and baby?) as they played just off our little lake’s shore. I didn’t hear my husband open the sliding glass door and step out behind me. I don’t know how long he stood there before he said hello, but I nearly choked on the butt end of my buttered five-grain. I prefer to do my practice recitations in private—outside, in the shower, in my car or for the cat.
When I think I’m finally ready, I record a selfie video. Then I play it back while I compare my voice with the written word, trashing and repeating until I’ve gotten it practically perfect in every way. Once I’m fairly sure that “by Alfred, I’ve got it,” I record it on youtube for the world and reward myself with a barista badge. Soon—maybe—when (if) I get my brave on, I’ll do a Facebook Live recitation.
Oh, one more thing. Remember those things called “word clouds” where you can input text into a site and create a cloud or a shape with the most-repeated words printed in larger font? I’ve created a teacup filled with Prufrock. I figure if I forget a word, I can insert the word “time” and have a pretty good chance of being correct.
So that’s it. I’m committing Prufrock with these six weapons. What are some of your favorite ways to memorize text?
Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, Sandra will update us on her progress and strategies for committing Prufrock. 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.
Want to commit Prufrock with Sandra? Download your own Committing Prufrock Poetry Dare Printable Barista Badges that you can cut out and color to celebrate all 15 sections as you memorize them. Tweet a photo with your badge to us at @tspoetry and use the hashtag #commitprufrock.
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.
“This will be the main textbook for the poetry unit from now on.”