Writer David Kern tells us that memorization is about love and memory — love for the things we remember the most. My eight-year-old grandson can rattle off sports scores and statistics like the most experienced sports analyst, but then, he loves sports. My wife knows the lyrics to virtually every song from the British Invasion of the 1960s. I can remember daily itineraries for six visits to England, including the first one in 1983. Our own Sandra Heska King even memorized the 131-line “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
My 12th grade English teacher had a slightly different view. She required each of us in a class of 30 boys to memorize at least one soliloquy by Shakespeare, because “you’re not educated unless you can recite a soliloquy by Shakespeare.” I chose the dagger scene from Macbeth, and I dutifully (as required) memorized it and recited it before the class. I still remember it today: “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. / I have thee not, and yet I still thee still …”
Decades later, when we saw an outdoor performance of Macbeth, my wife had to elbow me when I started reciting the speech along with the actor.
Kern has assembled a team of 14 writers and poets to create 30 Poems to Memorize (Before It’s Too Late). The selection criteria were simple, Kerns says. The contributors chose poems they love, poems readers have been passing on for years, and poems that are worth loving and memorizing.
Each of the 30 selections includes a poem, an introduction to the poet, and a short essay about the poem. Entries are democratically listed — alphabetically by poet. The poets are all well-known and represent a mix of living and dead, including W.H. Auden, Wendell Berry, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Donne, Homer, T.S. Eliot, Jane Kenyon, William Shakespeare, Dana Gioia, A.E. Stallings, Wallace Stevens, William Wordsworth, and more.
The poems include familiar and not so familiar selections. We have “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manly Hopkins, a selection from The Iliad and The Odyssey, and “Bright Star” by John Keats. And we have “Words” by Dana Gioia, “Act of Imagination” by Elizabeth Jennings, “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three” by A.E, Stallings, and the Agincourt speech from Henry V by Shakespeare.
One of the included poems is by Robert Hayden (1913-1980), a poet raised in several different homes in Detroit who didn’t achieve widespread acclaim until 1966.
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
The contributors are all published writers and poets, including Jeffrey Bilbro, James Matthew Wilson, A.M. Juster, Sally Thomas, Maurice Manning, Ian Andrews, Anthony Esolen, Heidi White, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and others. Kern served as the general editor and also contributed the entries on Kenyon, Stevens, and Eliot.
Mix poets, poems, and contributors’ essays together, and what results is a love letter to poetry and a genuine pleasure to read and enjoy.
Kern is the host of two podcasts, The Daily Poem and Close Roads, editor of FORMA Journal, and a vice president of the Circe Institute. He’s published numerous articles on film, television, books, and popular culture. He lives in North Carolina.
And when exactly is too late to memorize poems? I searched diligently for an answer in 30 Poems to Memorize (Before It’s Too Late), until I realized it was staring me in the face. It’s never too late. It’s only too late when you die: “I go, and it is done; the bell invites me. / Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell.”
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