On Knowing Poems

From William Stafford “Traveling Through Dark”

When I was in my spiritual poetry place in New Hampshire, I was always in awe, sipping scotch by the fire, of the teachers who could reel off poem after poem by heart. Sure, in ninth grade I had to learn a sonnet from The Merchant of Venice and in my early writing days I committed John Donne’s “Expiration” to memory. So far, that is all that I know.

But this year I’m coming home to knowing poems. Think of it as a Slow Poetry, or a Slo’ Po’ movement because you notice so much more from model poems when you slow down and question the guts and dazzle. Just look at the twists and turns in Frost’s “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” or the stunning end to Wallace Steven’s “The Snow Man””.

At bottom, the reason why I am so passionate about poetry is that it is in me. When you learn a poem by heart, you are never merely memorizing, but co-composing the poem with the poet, replaying and releasing her words into air.

And the benefits? You learn that the mistakes you make in reciting the poem are never better than the model. You learn about economy and combustion in language and that good poems truly are “the best words in the best order” as Coleridge said.

It’s going to be a good late summer session at Lighthouse with”By Heart: Seven Essential Poems and Practices”. I’d better start learning.


2 thoughts on “On Knowing Poems

  1. Hi Bob — all of the poets this time around are American or English. At each Lit Fest, I always teach a Poets in Translation class– you can see the previous line ups here:
    https://lynnwagner.com/teaching/#pit — In Teaching

    –Russian, Greek, Spanish, etc (I’d be interested in adding Chinese and Japanese poets in translation in future Lit fest.)

    Partly because we are acquiring the language and construction of poems from the learning by heart and the exercises that we do, it’s best to stick to poems originally in English.

    But there is a mix of men and women, contemporary and classic, African American and white (this time around– I would like to teach this class again based on themes).

    all best, Lynn

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