Drawing on the wisdom of poetry

School never was my thing. First, there was the impossibility of sitting still in study hall; without knowing how it happened, I often found myself wandering the halls and picking up demerits. Then, there was the acute combination of social anxiety -- in my case, well-deserved -- and academic anxiety. I couldn't seem to focus on high school homework, so my occasional good test scores suggested I wasn't trying. Feeling lost made me defensive. Teachers disliked me and the feeling often was mutual.

The worst of it was the absurd practice of memorization. Sitting in dusty classrooms at cramped desks, reciting poems in sing-songy unison with my obsequious classmates was lower than I was willing to go. "I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree," my classmates chanted, while I threw spitballs and fidgeted.

Home was no respite. Every Sunday night, everyone in our family was required to recite a poem they had memorized during the week. I sulked and memorized the shortest, rhymiest Robert Frost poems I could find.

Of course, by the time I had school-aged children, I had completely changed my mind about school and a lot of other things. I wanted my children to do well in school, and I wanted them to memorize poems as well as the rules of grammar and German vocabulary. I didn't tell them about my own dismal high school history.

My daughter delighted in reciting pages of Shakespeare. My son, however, took after me. To entice him into memorizing poems, I found poems featuring obscenities that he was otherwise forbidden to say; he happily memorized Philip Larkin's great, angry poem about lousy parents.

Then, a year ago, I got more serious. I decided he should memorize Shelley's "Ozymandias," a Keats sonnet and John Donne's great sermon that begins, "No man is an island." He agreed only when I said I would memorize them, too.

I was surprised to find that memorizing poems is enjoyable. I loved the moment of satisfaction when my mind retrieved a word or phrase. I loved saying each poem to myself. Best of all, poems reluctantly memorized long ago came flooding back.

I seemed to recall everything I had memorized under duress as a teenager, including prayers, hymns, the choruses of an Italian opera, lots of Frost and some Yeats. "I will arise and go now," I began chanting to myself from Yeats' poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." Whenever life became overwhelming, I thought about Yeats' "bee-loud glade," and it calmed me.

My favorite words about the difficulties of writing are in T.S. Eliot's poem "Four Quartets." After an eloquent, bitter complaint, Eliot draws a conclusion that soars above reviewers and editors. "For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

Almost a year ago, I decided to memorize a section of the poem, which is nine pages long. I know that my middle-aged mind doesn't work in the way my teenage mind worked. Still, I put the book out on my desk open to the poem and hoped to acquire a line a day.

That didn't happen, but something happened.

Memorizing a poem is an intimate experience, a trip inside the mind of the poet. In 10 months, I have memorized three pages of this marvelous poem. It was more fun than I could have imagined. Eliot's description of a hot summer day enlivened my summer. "Now the light falls across the open field, leaving the deep lanes shuttered with branches. Dark in the afternoon."

These lines that I can retrieve at any time have become my most precious possessions. What could be better than to always have access to a mind-altering succession of words?

On a good day I have Wordsworth, on a bleaker day I have Yeats. Thoreau reminds me that I don't want to discover, when I come to die, that I have not lived. Emily Dickinson is there with her admonition against worldly success, and Frost's search for some kind of faith embodied in the natural world seems an exact description of my own search.

I think of these poems as being beautiful, smooth, worn stones that I keep in my pockets. I am grateful, a few decades too late, to my parents and teachers who introduced me to these pleasures.

Maybe at last I am ready to benefit from going to high school.

Susan Cheever is a columnist at Newsday. Domestic Bliss will return next week.


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