The joy of committing (to memory)

Jan. 17, 2018, 8:12 p.m.
The joy of committing (to memory)
Courtesy of Flickr

My habit began with Afroman’s beloved masterpiece, “Crazy Rap” (2001). Driving back from Palo Alto with our mistaken love for T4 boba, relishing the sweet wind blowing in on a night out as “basic” Californians, my childhood friend and I decided to play this song as we had done for years on such excursions. Turning up the volume, we swayed and danced in our seats as much as we could without crashing into the shoulder of El Camino.

There was but one bungle to this ritual: I could barely recite the lyrics. Were you to ask me to bust out one of the unapologetically ribald encounters with women on which the rapper reminisces, I would mumble some phrase about Hawaii, titties and fruit punch as indistinctly as a churchgoer who chants their hymns solely within the context of mass, promptly forgetting their significance upon seeing the maple-glazed doughnuts bedecking the tables outside. For me, who had trouble recalling even the whitest-of-the-white lines from pop songs, and who had no other familiarity with the vernacular of dirty rap singles, the rush of sugar and merriment with my friend collided queasily with my ambiguous knowledge of a song I thought I loved so well.

Of course, there’s no shame in yelling out the harmony instead of the words when memory fails. We were only tenth graders on a boba run. Nonetheless, it didn’t feel as though I were wholly a part of “Crazy Rap” — or, erroneously, as though I weren’t a part of the friendship — until the song was with me in the daylight, a fastened memory, made concrete even outside the integument of the family Prius. Having nothing better to do with my time in that second year of high school, I wrote down the lyrics on a piece of paper and flipped it open throughout the next two weeks until I could fully taste Afroman’s ode to itinerant sexuality wherever I went. Walking to Chemistry, I would mutter one line, link it to the next, then link the second line to a third. Eventually it possessed me.

I didn’t memorize any verse for a long time thereafter — at least, not until Emily Dickinson rolled up with her diamond-encrusted quatrains. In senior year I received for Christmas an Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection of her poems, which was as compact as the gift paired with it, a petite blue leather pocketbook, too formidable and splendid an item for jotting down ho-hum observations of a suburban life. But I soon found use for it.

During that winter break I had read an article advocating for the memorization of poems. Apart from the usual malarkey (which I usually swallowed whole) that memorizing poems would improve the rhythm of my poems, my general memory and my “poetic sensibility” — whatever that meant – one benefit to memorization struck me as the most evident: the “carrying around” a poet wherever one went. How different was this from familiarizing myself with Afroman two years before?

These eight lines of Dickinson were among the first of poems I began to carry around with me in the pocketbook:

     Longing is like the Seed

     That wrestles in the Ground,

     Believing if it intercede

     It shall at length be found.


     The Hour, and the Clime —

     Each Circumstance unknown

     What Constancy must be achieved

     Before it see the sun!

But what is the use — the joy — of this commitment? Why do I spend my time frittering away lines which possess no obvious long-term benefit? How does reaching backward in time to older writers grant one a connection with the present? How do we forget ourselves so that we can be ourselves, moving and flourishing in the world?

One can hypothesize all sorts of effects that memorization has on the poetry one writes, or effects on one’s experience of life as the lines “seep into the blood,” as one poetry teacher once described it. For example, the Emily Dickinson poem may offer guidance and patience to someone impatient for a particular love. One can even say memorization takes advantage of poetry’s native brevity, allowing the human vessel to linguistically wrap concepts, histories, but most importantly emotions, into the mauve folds of memory, thus able to be dispatched incognito to places which aim to suppress those aspects of humanity. Immediately I picture gulags and solitary confinement. U.S. Veteran John Borling, for example, tapped out Morse code sonnets in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoners of war prison during the Vietnam War.

But more powerful than all these claims is the surrendering of oneself to the language of a master poet contemporary with or preceding one’s world – a heartily welcomed other mind. By memorizing a poem, I cultivate that poet’s presence everywhere, letting their voice wash over my own thoughts when the latter proves too much to bear. To pretend that Emily Dickinson has consumed me, that Afroman has sopped me up — it is a delicious, almost religious experience of absolute dependence on their words. As someone who despised going to mass every Sunday, I find myself not too different than the doddering dames who filled my parish, afterward carrying with them to the supermarket their blue leather prayer books.

Wiping the mind with an inner chant: these poems served as an analgesic to disturbed, obsessive thinking which characterized my days in 2017. Disordered eating, hysterical self-denunciation and, most uncontrollable, thoughts of one whom I love but no longer see. I had poems for each neurosis, diverting my attention away from brooding which served no one and which centered my consciousness around mere pity for myself. We want to transfigure suffering into a bridge toward other people, but self-pity bars us from this possibility more inevitably than the narcissism of pretended superiority.

I remember how I felt at ease when I could let go of my self-consciousness singing “Crazy Rap” with my friend. I observe how gently I can fall asleep now when whispering longer pieces like Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” If I can let go of my own worries, I have a sharper image of the world around me, what people may need from me. Some go to priests; others to cognitive behavioral therapy; I to poetry.


Contact Scott Stevens at scotts7 ‘at’


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