Our Reading Lives

Committing It To Memory

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

My last post, about reading out loud, has naturally lead me to the consideration of what we memorize. The act of memorizing literature is so old-fashioned and dusty, but I say, along with reading out loud let’s dust it off memorizing things. My grandfathers on both sides committed to memory large swaths of the Canon: some Shakespeare, some Eliot, T.S. that is, not George (which quite frankly is their loss), Poe, Keats, Kipling, and The Owl and The Pussycat.

My maternal grandfather also memorized, in Spanish: ¡Los suspiros son aire y van al aire! /¡Las lágrimas son agua y van al mar! /Dime, mujer, cuando el amor se olvida /¿sabes tú adónde va? – Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

Here’s what I’ve memorized: a scrap.

Wait, no. Not a scrap. A short poem. In college I took a Modern Poetry class and we had to memorize a modern poem and I chose the shortest thing I could find in the anthology we were using which of course was William Carlos Williams’ This Is Just To Say. And I’ll write it here, from memory (you’ll have to trust me on this).

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which

you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

By memorizing it, and have kept it fresh all these years by trotting it out whenever plums were in season, I feel not only awesome about myself, I also feel an intimacy with the poem I wouldn’t otherwise have. When I say to my husband, “Forgive me,” it is short hand, really, for this entire poem, and we both know it.


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