The day of the inauguration I was at the everything store, buying a little bit of everything. Two men were talking, blocking the cosmetics aisle. They did not look like men who used cosmetics. They were saying there was no place for them in this country anymore. I said, “Excuse me,” and pushed between them with my cart.
That happened when I was about three weeks into memorizing W.H. Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening. At the time I didn’t have the whole thing learned — I still don’t — but a few lines had already wedged themselves into my brain and asserted themselves uninvited. Like these that sprang up after my encounter:
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart
Auden’s poem, published on New Year’s Day, 1940, is not about presidents. It’s about love and time, and it takes place beside a river. By the end of the poem the hour is late, late in the evening, and all that is left is the river, which runs on. Listen to Auden read As I Walked Out One Evening and let his accent work its own meaning for you.
This is a poem with wonderful images — the ocean “folded and hung up to dry,” a glacier that “knocks in the cupboard,” and salmon that “sing in the street.” I love these images even though I do not claim to understand them. But if they are true, then so is this line: “Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless.”
I did not quite learn the poem by heart, but I read it aloud each day in January, and I’m familiar enough with it that if you give me the first line of a stanza I can fill in the rest. I plan to keep this one around because I never tire of it, the way one never tires of a river.
This month I also read poems by fine artist Dianne Grammer about the Colorado River, especially the part that people in Austin, Texas, know as Lady Bird Lake. Grammer quotes The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame and A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean. And in “Cold Springs” she writes:
The river has so many things to say,
a story without words
…and each of us hears something different,
intertwined with our own story.
The river said strange things to Auden. A different river said different strange things to Grammer. On the day I rudely barged between the cosmetics dudes, our country celebrated a young poet who spoke about The Hill We Climb. I loved the poem, but I kept thinking about Auden’s “the brimming river,” “the deep river.” Through our country’s ups and downs and through the crookedness of our own hearts, it runs still.
Did you memorize “As I Walked Out One Evening” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the poem.
By Heart for February
For the next By Heart gathering, February 26, we’ll learn “blessing the boats” by Lucille Clifton.
blessing the boats
(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro