Joyce has a good friend--a poet--who has memorized scores of poems. Recently, she (the poet) told Joyce that she's been so busy and occupied that some of those poems--perhaps feeling neglected?--have flown from what she once thought had been a very secure cage in her memory.
I know the feeling. I, too, have memorized scores of poems, but now Later Life has arrived and has begun to collect some rent, I find that some of the poems that took considerable effort to catch and confine in my head are making seditious sounds. Threats of leaving if I don't take better care of them.
As I've written here on other occasions, I have kept, in recent years, a pretty strict routine of rehearsal. I assign certain poems to certain times of the day (and certain activities), and I have been pretty good--if not perfect--about adhering to that routine. I have a set that I practice ...
- in the shower four mornings (M-T-Th-F)
- on my walk over to the coffee shop in the morning (same days as above)
- at the coffee shop (same days as above)
- on my walk home from the coffee shop (same days)
- on my way to my afternoon coffee shop (same days)
- on my drive out to the health club in the afternoon (same days)--some long ones ("My Last Duchess" and "Dover Beach")
- at the health club (while I walk from the locker room back to the exercise area--all days but Sunday, when I don't go to the health club)
- at the health club (on the exercise bike--M-W-F)
- at the health club (on the exercise bike--T-Th-Sat)
- at the health club (walking laps after the bike--M-W-F)
- at the health club (walking laps after the bike--T-Th-Sat)
- at the health club (cooldown laps--every day--some of the long poems I know, e.g., "My Lost Youth" by Longfellow)
- at the health club, in the shower (M thru Sat); I do not say these aloud for obvious reasons!
I reserve Wednesday and Saturday coffee shop walks for learning new ones ... just today I started on Edgar Lee Masters' "Mabel Osborne," a poem from Spoon River Anthology, a poem I picked for two reasons: I like it; my middle name is Osborn (my mother's maiden name).
When things are going well, I follow this routine faithfully, week after week. But when things are not going well? My health? Joyce's? Other issues? I don't rehearse. And the result is predictable: The next time I start mumbling on the exercise bike, some words have faded. It is "yet" or "but"? Is there an "and" in that slot? Etc. Etc. Etc.
Sometimes entire lines will vanish. Stanzas. And I will have to consult Mr. Internet or one of my index cards (where I've stored them all; I carry them in my backpack). And the words, realizing I've noticed that they're preparing to fly, step back (a foolish-guilty smile affixed to their beaks) into my memory. Where they'll stay until I once again neglect them.
I know it's kind of silly, doing all this. I mean, why do I memorize poems so compulsively? Very few people even want to hear them--Joyce the principal exception. I've had family members walk away when I've launched into one. And I no longer teach. I used to have my students memorize, and I would occasionally recite something in class, just because. On my very last day of my teaching career (June 2011)--in my first class period of the day--I tried to end the class with Prospero's speech from The Tempest--the speech that begins with "Our revels now are ended ...." But I didn't get very far before I, well, broke down. A little. I didn't even try it later in the day. I knew what would happen.
So ... why do I try so hard to keep them? I'm sure there are all sorts of reasons (ranging from stubbornness to, perhaps, a dollop of arrogance), but one of the main ones, I think, is that I love them. And I don't know anyone who delights in seeing a loved one fly away.