I took a class in college on poetry. I wasn’t a poet, nor did I want to be a poet, but my creative writing advisor thought that writing poetry might teach me to distill my fiction down to its essence and find the truth about what I was trying to say in my stories.
I didn’t hold out much hope for this plan. Most of what I learned about writing in college was nonsense. I was taught by honest-to-goodness writers - extraordinary talents - which sounds great until you discover that these aren’t actually teachers.
They may write well, but they don’t know how to teach the process to others.
So I wandered into the senior level poetry class of Hugh Ogden, who was both an esteemed poet and an extraordinary teacher. Hugh took a young man who felt out of place in a room full of students who had been studying poetry and made him feel welcome, even when some of those students did not.
Hugh had a profound impact on my life, and it turns out that my advisor was right. I found ways to say a great deal in very few words. When I look back on the poetry that I wrote during that class, most of it was autobiographical, and honestly, much of it is structured in ways very similar to the ways I tell stories on the stage today.
Hugh also required us to come to class each week with a newly memorized poem. This was daunting at first, but by the end of the semester, I loved the first 15 minutes of class when each student recited a new poem from memory.
As a result, I memorized a lot of poems, and I can still recite several by heart, including “The Jabberwocky,” “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” “In Flanders Fields,” “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “Oh Captain, My Captain,” and many shorter ones.
A few years ago I memorized “The Tyger” by William Blake as a Hanukkah gift to Elysha. She loves the poem, so in memorizing it, I told her that she now has access to its recitation at any time.
I also have several French poems memorized from my high school French days, as well as several pieces from Shakespeare.
All of this is to say that you should memorize a poem or two. I was listening to a sound check at a Moth GrandSLAM recently, and the storyteller recited “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as his sound check. I always prefer to vamp a new story or do a bit of standup during these sound checks, but reciting a poem was a lovely thing.
Everyone in the theater was impressed, admittedly leaving me thinking, “Hey! I know that one, too! And many others!"
But by seeing how impressed folks were, it also made me realize that we don’t memorize poems anymore. That is a sad thing.
A few years ago Slate’s Daliah Lithwick wrote:
“…it’s possible that the real magic of college will completely pass you by until you realize, many years later, that holy shit, you know “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” or Leaves of Grass, and all the wisdom of the ages was packed in there, it’s just that you missed it at the time for band practice, or swim team, or to get to the salad bar before all the hearts of palm were gone.”
It’s so very true. Throughout my life, I’ve found myself responding to argument, thoughts, and ideas with the verse locked in my mind. And that verse, as I’ve grown older, has revealed itself to me in new and fascinating ways.
Thank goodness for Hugh.
Hugh died in 2007 at the age of 69 after falling through thin ice on a lake in Maine. The world has missed him ever since. But in honor of Hugh and the desire to lock some new verse into my brain, I’m going to spend the rest of the year firming up the poems I have already memorized and memorizing a new poem or some new verse, starting with Hamlet’s third soliloquy and Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”
Won’t you join me?