Memorizing a Poem

26 May

My path to poetry was atypical. I suppose everyone’s is. I was never a big fan, other than Shakespeare which for some bizarre reason I never really considered to be poetry. When I made the decision to apply to the Creative Writing track at my university, I dreaded the fact that I would have to take poetry classes. To me, poetry was pretentious, obtuse and a dying art form. I felt like all the required verse classes I had to take were a giant waste of my time. Prose had always been my natural mode of writing, and I wanted to spend as much time as possible perfecting it.

Then, there was Steve Dold.

Steve Dold. I don’t know where to start. He was my junior year poetry writing professor. He was a dreamboat. Every girl in our class was madly in love with him. He would strut into class with his leather jacket and tousled hair. When he read poetry aloud, he’d get this dreamy look in his eyes and take on a high-pitched intonation which was comical yet entrancing. He taught us iambic pentameter by relating it to a steady heartbeat. A 20-year-old girl’s heart didn’t stand a chance.

Our assignments were pretty standard creative writing stuff. We would read a bevy of a certain type of poem then write our own. One week we worked on narrative, another week we worked on sonnets. The only other requirement he had for us was to memorize a poem, just one, any one we liked.

“I believe this will be the most important thing you take away from this class,” I remember him saying. “You will have this poem in your mind if you choose to keep it with you in your life. At some dark hour, when you most need it, it will be there, a calming refrain, a gift you give yourself.”

I rolled my eyes and decided that I would just pick a random villanelle. Villanelle is a highly structured poem based on French poetry. There are a couple of repeating refrains, a strict meter, and a predictable rhyme scheme. I figured this would be an easy form to learn. I checked out a book from the library full of them, I read a couple and found one that struck me. As I read it aloud, something about it was so pleasant, so perfect, and although I didn’t completely grasp the meaning, it affected my heart in a positive way.

I set myself to memorizing it one night when I was home alone in my apartment. I remember making Macaroni and Cheese, taking a shower, cleaning up my room, all while repeating the poem over and over again to myself.

With each repetition, something happened. I became more and more attached to each line. What was originally an interesting but opaque poem became a poem that meant something, each line revealing itself to me more and more.

I memorized that poem and still know it by heart. I went on to focus on writing and reading poetry. When I bring up poetry to people, they often groan and say they just don’t get it, that it’s too academic. Nothing irks me more. Poetry takes time. It is rare to read through a poem and understand it and be done with it. Poetry is meant to dwell with, to spend time with the words, the variety of meanings, to pull something from it for yourself. When I originally set to memorizing a poem, the poem had little meaning to me, except that I enjoyed the first line. Now it is a source of comfort when I’m feeling down. Yes, at dark times in my life, that poem comes to mind and it means something to me. It might not mean anything to anyone else, and it might not mean to me what was originally intended by the poet, but that’s not the point of poetry. It’s an art, and we are to take from it whatever we need.

The Waking

I will forever be thankful to Steve Dold for that.


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