Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Year of Learning Poems

About five weeks ago I started to memorise one poem each week. It occured to me that it would be interesting to document what this is teaching me about poetry.

My first choice was 'The Wild Swans at Coole'by W B Yeats on the grounds that more traditional poetry would be easier to memorise than free verse. Ive now learnt (in order):
The Wild Swans at Coole - W B Yeats
Lake Isle of Innisfree - W B Yeats
To Helen - Edgar Allen Poe
The Song of the Nomad Flute - W S Merwin
Good Night - W S Merwin
The Musee des Beaux Artes - W H Auden
Poem for a Hard Time - Lorna Crozier

What interested me today was how many of my favourite poems from a few years back didn't seem to merit learning by heart. They were too personal, sometimes, too much about the poet's life without those little ripples towards my own experiences. They were too clunky or wooden and I couldn't hear myself enjoying saying them aloud as I walked the dogs. They were too easy - leaving no room to contemplate the exact meaning the poet intended as with Merwin's The Song of the Nomad Flue - or tried too hard and therefore lacked the beautiful plainess of Lorna Crozier's 'Poem for a Hard Time'.

It can be riskier for a poet to rely on simplicity - on solid concrete images as Crozier does, or on a melodious repetition of plain monosyllabic words; night, dark, love, sleep, as Merwin does in 'Good Night' than to construct dazzling word scaffolds which take us up and up but lead nowhere.

Next poem I want to learn will be by Anne Sexton - a poet whose risk-taking was in her own self-mythologising as much as it was in her pile-up of imagery. I love Sexton's work and I'll be interested to see if it sings out to me in this context, which, by it's very nature of mindful repetition, reveals all a poem's bumps and blemishes - as well as their gorgeous bones.


Cartillyer said...

Where on earth do you get the time to memorise these? Do you never sleep??

Cattyrox said...

Actually, I memorise them as I walk the dogs - the more you learn, the easier it becomes!