The Dog Walk Sutra of a couple of weeks ago came out of my little project to finally memorize the Heart Sutra, and to dedicate at least a part of my morning dog walks to reciting it. Because that was such a success, I decided that maybe the morning dog walks might also be a good opportunity to memorize some poems. I’m not getting any younger, and my graduate work is fading farther and farther into the past, and although I am grateful for my day job at the Big Corporation, it’s not creative work at all. I had this nagging feeling that I was losing touch with something that had, for so many many years, been vitally important to me. So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been managing about a poem a week, which isn’t bad, as I walk back and forth through town to the dog park and back, my xeroxed copy of the poem of the week folded up in my hand, muttering poetry out loud, and sneaking a peek when I can’t remember the next line.
One of the things I’m discovering, of course, is that memorizing a poem forces one to pay close attention to the actual language. I did “Meditation at Lagunitas” a couple of weeks ago, a poem I’ve loved ever since my undergraduate days. In fact, Robert Hass was the first modern poet I discovered on my own, not through a class or a teacher, but by trolling the poetry aisle in my undergraduate library at Beloit College. Because the Beloit Poetry Journal was published there, we had a stupendous poetry aisle in our library, as well as the presence of Marion Stocking, who taught us all, forced us even, to learn to really read a poem. To look closely at which words the poet chose, what adjectives, what verbs — and who made us articulate why we thought the poet had chosen this set of words, in this order, and not some other alternative. In memorizing “Meditation” — a poem I had big fragments of in my brain, but not the whole thing, I found myself surprised that Hass chose to use the word “idea” twice in the same sentence — in the third and fourth lines of the poem. I wouldn’t have noticed this if I wasn’t memorizing the poem, because the repetition made me stop, made me look back at the poem, “idea” twice, could that be right? the same word at both the beginning and end of the sentence? Hmm. Not the kind of thing I would have noticed as a general reader — if I was writing a paper perhaps, but my paper-writing days are behind me now, and I’m not really interested in that kind of writing any more. And after a week of walking back and forth through the streets of Livingston, I now have one of the poems which is dearest to my heart firmly lodged (I hope) in my head. There whenever I need it.
This isn’t about poetry being “good for you” in some sort of prescriptive way, like vitamins. I hate that idea. For me, this is about reconnecting with the love of words and sentences and sounds that made me want to write in the first place. Hass‘s line: ” Longing, because desire is full of endless distances” for example — a line that has so entered my being that it feels like a personal epigram. Or the sheer joy in reciting out loud the Yeats line, declaiming “And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” Just say it. Listen to the consonants and the way they roll off the tongue. For me, this project is as much about slowing down, and paying attention to language, and reminding myself of what it was I first loved, all those years ago as a teenager, crouched to see the bottom shelf of the tiny poetry section in the Lake Forest Bookshop where I found a book whose title held out a marvelous promise that “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far.” A wild patience! Is there any better phrase to describe the inner experience of high school? All of this seems to be sinking out of my daily life, a life in which I spend so so much time online, and find it increasingly difficult to concentrate on a whole book, or a whole poem, increasingly difficult to slow down and focus. And so, we’ll see. I dont’ know that memorizing poems while walking the dog will help any of this, but I do know that I’m having a lovely time doing it. And I’m now old enough, that I don’t care who sees me wandering the streets, a poem wadded up in my hand, muttering out loud to myself.
This week I needed a new poem so I opened the lovely anthology that Czelaw Milosz published several years ago, A Book of Luminous Things, and found “The Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.
“The Wild Geese”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You have only to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.