I grow old . . . I grow old . . . Who starts memorizing poetry at my age?
If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be memorizing swaths of poetry now—on purpose—starting with a 131-line T.S. Eliot poem, I might have rolled up the bottoms of my white girlfriend jeans and run muttering down our country road. But someone dared to disturb my universe. Who knew I’d find myself settling a pillow or walking down the beach or floating on waves while reciting chunks of verse?
How did I do it?
So far I haven’t had the patience to conjure up fantastical images like many memory champions. I didn’t stock a memory palace, an imaginary building in my mind where I could “cubbyhole” those images like the ancients did. I memorized (this time) mostly by rote and repetition. I wrote words out. I also let the poem come alive in my head. I visualized my own picture of what was happening in each verse. I did create images for prepositions or transition words (like a witch flying on a broom for “which” or a mermaid sitting on a large piece of driftwood for “should” as opposed to a mermaid with a shawl draped over her head for “shall.”) I don’t dream of ever entering some kind of memory competition. My collection of barista badges is enough for me.
I have done it.
I have committed Prufrock. And I live to tell about it, though I can’t drink a cup of tea or eat a peach or a piece of toast without thinking about him. Okay, so I’m still working on that Italian epigraph, but it’s committed, and it’s been worth it after all. How so?
I feel proud.
If I could stretch my unbraceleted, lightly downed and wavy-skinned arm far enough past my stiff shoulder joint, I’d pat myself firmly on the back. I’ll settle for tapping myself on the nape of my neck because—I did it. I said I would, though I wasn’t sure I could, but I did. Maybe not perfectly. Maybe not exactly word for word. Maybe not the Italian—yet. But, I combed the hair of this poem back and stood tall for video selfie recitations in the sun. I fired up the old neurons, and I’m pretty sure I grew some new ones. I’ll even bet I have some broader brainy connections. I went on an adventure and proved to myself that my age is no barrier to learning new things. What else might I be able to do?
I feel literary.
I seriously memorized The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I reminisced with Tom (we had a bit of a fling a few years back) and delved into Dante’s Inferno. I read some study guides and summaries and slipped around Shakespeare and Andrew Marvell and John Donne and other poets that those more literary than I am think Eliot alludes to. Whoever wrote the stanza IV summary for Schmoop said:
“Eliot knew a lot about literature. He read more books than almost any other writer in the 20th century—maybe more than any other writer, period. He could make subtle references to all kinds of literary figures without even trying. His brain worked like that. Good for him.
“But you don’t have to ‘get’ these references to understand his poems. Sometimes, though, they are fun to point out.”
So, without even realizing it, I guess it’s possible I’ve taken pieces of other poems to heart along with Prufrock.
I feel different . . .
. . . though I can’t put my finger on how. In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, U.S. Memory Champion Joshua Foer said that after he competed in the World Championship, testing showed he’d doubled his digit span—how many numbers he could repeat after presentation, which is “the gold standard by which working memory is measured.” He said though he also could recall more lines of poetry, he not only forgot where he’d parked his car but also that he’d even driven one to dinner and took the subway home just a few nights after the big event.
And yet clearly I had changed. Or at least how I thought about myself had changed . . . I’d learned firsthand that, with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things . . . What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice. (pp. 266-268)
He went on to say that though he’s “committed quite a few poems to heart,” he’s never memorized any work of literature longer than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He doesn’t use the techniques he’s learned on a daily basis to memorize phone numbers or lists. So why bother? And what’s the point of my putting in the effort to commit Prufrock?
Foer goes on, shedding light on the point beside the point:
Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory . . . Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and the source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged . . . it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human. (pp. 269-270)
Maybe that’s part of how I feel different—nurtured and more connected to the common culture from the earliest of times to the present and even into the future. I feel a little like I’m standing on the beach of something bigger, and I don’t know where the waves will take me.
And so, at last, it is finished. Or maybe it’s just beginning. I think I’ll tackle Frost’s The Road Not Taken next. It should be a stroll in the woods after Prufrock.
Read more on Sandra’s dare to Commit Prufrock
Editor’s Note: Over the past several months, Sandra has shared her progress and strategies for committing Prufrock. 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.