I didn’t go to any schools that really required memorization. I have a vague memory of needing to memorize the Gettysburg Address in fifth grade, and there may have been extra credit for the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech” in 10th grade English. But in general, my memorization skills have mostly been used for song lyrics and remembering that Zack Morris dates Stacy Carosi that one summer on “Saved by the Bell.”
Now a confession: I like to diss on poetry. It’s snobby, I know. But it’s also funny and you always gotta go for the joke, right? I think my problem with poetry is twofold: One, I never read it unless forced and two, it’s really, really easy to be a very bad poet. It’s like “I’m a poet, I write incomplete sentences and put in weird line breaks. See? Totally poetry!” Bleh. Also, I’m probably not smart enough to understand a lot of poetry, so I’d much rather blame the form than my own shortcomings.
However, today as I was sitting here not doing what I was supposed to, I started reciting a random poem in my head. It was this bit by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
I have no idea where it came from or why I remembered it. I don’t think I ever had to memorize poetry in school, and yet, there it was. It might have been a long-ago remnant of effluvia leftover from when I read Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay back in 2001.
So after reciting poetry to myself, I decided to see how many snippets of poems I had floating around in my brain. This was much more difficult than you’d think. First, I had to keep separating the song lyrics from the actual poems. Also, I have a lot of Thomas Jefferson speeches floating around in the grey matter (the PoliSci major I once was is really “never say die!”).
So here, I present a partial list (I got bored after like 20 minutes) of random poems I have memorized for no reason that I can remember*.
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
[and they all found a bunch of stuff that was supposed to reflect who they are but I can never remember the stuff] For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
— ee cummings, maggie and millie and molly and may
i like my body when it is with your body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
[and a bunch more sexy stuff I don’t remember] And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new
— ee cummings, i like my body
Nature’s first green is gold,
her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf’s a flower
— Robert Frost, Nothing Gold Can Stay
Okay, I know this whole entire poem. I could recite it (er, type it) for you, but come on, do you doubt me? I best most every girl who ever had a crush on Ponyboy Curtis knows this poem by heart and will always, always be able to recite it at a drop of a hat.
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing
America $2.27 January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me
I won’t write my poems till I’m in my right mind
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
— Allen Ginsberg, America
There was a time in the mid-90s where I could do a goodly chunk of “Howl” from memory too, but I think my collegiate binge-drinking erased it. “America” stuck because I have an mp3 of Allen Ginsberg reading it over Tom Waits’ “Closing Time.”
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
— Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening
I know all of this one too. Whenever I think of it I see my Women’s Lit prof, Bergine Haakanson, doing an odd little march/dance to the meter of this one. I don’t know why we were talking about Frost, who was a dude, but we were. Because of that class, I also know this:
We sat across the table.
he said, cut off your hands.
they are always poking at things.
they might touch me.
I said yes.
Food grew cold on the table.
he said, burn your body.
it is not clean and smells like sex.
it rubs my mind sore.
I said yes.
I love you, I said.
That’s very nice, he said
I like to be loved,
that makes me happy.
Have you cut off your hands yet?
— Marge Piercy, The Friend
Christ climbed down from His bare tree this year
and softly stole away into some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night of everybody’s anonymous soul. . .
— Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Christ Climbed Down
All that I know
Of a certain star
Is, it can throw
Like an angled spar
Now a dart of red,
Now a dart of blue;
Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too. . .
— Robert Browning, My Star
I was a child and she was a child
In this kingdom by the sea, but we loved with a love that was more than love
Me and my Annabel Lee
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the beautiful Annabel Lee
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes of the beautiful Annabel Lee
And so, something something I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In the sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the something sea.
— Edgar Allen Poe, Annabel Lee (I can also do bits of The Raven now that I think about it)
We wear the mask that grins and lies
That hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
— Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask
* All mistakes and punctuation/formatting errors are due to a faulty memory and the desire to not cheat and Google the poems and appear to be much smarter than I actually am.