I have a New Year’s resolution. It is somewhat daunting yet completely within my capability and will give me a sense of accomplishment and enrichment should I complete it.
I plan to learn a poem by heart.
I decided this on the day before New Year’s eve. My in-laws had left a day earlier and even though I had lots of work to do before the neighborhood New Year’s Eve partyI gave myself the morning off. I let the kids play video games in the family room, something they hadn’t done for over a week while their grandparents occupied the space, while I stayed in my pj’s and took to my bedroom like a moody teenager. Lounging in bed I listened to old cassettes of a music project of mine from the late 80’s and read poems out of college text books. It was self-indulgent time travel, yet it felt rejuvenating and necessary. It reminded me how good poetry is for my soul. That’s when I decided I was done with all the usual self-improvement resolutions.
Obviously the desire to eat better, exercise more, work smarter not harder, all while learning to love yourself for who you truly are, doesn’t work out for most people. If it did, the internet wouldn’t explode each January 1st with articles on how to make this year the year to keep your New Year’s Resolutions, not to mention the crazy lists about the 7 Surprising Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Diet And Self-Esteem By Reading All These Lists About How You’re Doing Everything Wrong. I don’t have the energy to think about all the things I’m doing wrong while trying to become a better person who accepts herself. I think I’ll just live with my foibles, learn a poem and move on.
So then the question becomes – which poem do I learn? I do have a few poems in my repertoire – easy, short poems by W.B. Yeats and Emily Dickinson as well as the very first poem I ever committed to memory, a catchy verse from Kate Greenaway’s Under the Window . I haven’t worked too hard at memorizing big chunks of words since my college days, so there’s an inclination to keep it short and sweet, but I want it to be meaningful which brings me to a recent confluence of events:
Back in November, my friend, Nate, who was expecting his third son (born on December 31st 2013 – Congrats Nate and Rose!), told me he and his wife had decided to name the child Eliot after T.S. Eliot. After learning this I felt the pull to re-read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and so headed down to the family room to find my old copy of The Wasteland and other Poems. I was barely there for 5 minutes before my kids appeared and asked what I was doing. My husband, worried he was missing out on a party, showed up soon after. I explained I was reading poetry and then without offering anyone a chance to escape, opened the book and began, “Let us go then, you and I . . .”
Both boys listened to the entire poem without interruption which I found amazing because while my inner voice reads the poem with the proper measured tone and inflections, the reading my real voice gave left a lot to be desired. When I finished, my youngest son asked to hear more poetry. My eldest son seemed lost in thought.
“If you memorize passages of this poem and quote the right parts at the right time,“ I told my oldest son, “There are people who will be very impressed and think good things about you.”
“Really,” he asked.
“Yep, especially that part about the mermaids, “my husband chimed in, “Everyone loves that part about the mermaids.” (It’s true. Many, many years ago, back in the 1990’s, a friend sent me a handmade postcard with mermaids on the front. On the back she had written “Actually, I do think they are singing to you.” It was so touching that I have kept it, even though she has long since gone out of my life.)
My husband then put a record on the turntable and we sat there listening to music and, at least in my case, thinking about poetry. It was one of those rare picture-perfect moments when your kids behave exactly like you imagined your kids would behave, before you actually had kids. It gave me yet another reason to appreciate “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
My younger self always appreciated the poem because by my humble interpretation, it touches on human frailty and failure, mortality and missed connections, all wrapped in the yearning for something greater that will never transpire. It’s beautiful and timeless and I know small sections of it already, but it would be wonderful to have it all committed to memory.
And so, this year instead of resolving to take up the 7 habits of highly effective people, or eat only the 5 foods that will melt my belly fat, or try 10 tricks that will cut my workout time in half, I resolve to learn “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t try other things, it simply means I am to making poetry a priority for my mind, body and soul. After all, learning poetry by heart is the number one purest and safest way to ingest art and make it part of you. I think it’s a pretty good resolution.
As an aside – I’ve often wondered how many people have a poem or poems committed to memory and what those poems might be. Let me know if you do.