In the last few years, I’ve begun to enjoy reading poetry. But I love what can happen when a poem is repeatedly heard, spoken, and recalled. It becomes a living thing that takes up residence in your body. Spurred on by the advice of Dana Gioia, I’ve been trying to memorize a poem. And wow! My body responded!
I chose George Herbert’s “Prayer (I),” fourteen lines with over twenty vivid images, all nouns, like a slide show. Rather than instruct us how to pray properly, Herbert paints pictures to stimulate the desire to experience “the church’s banquet,” “God’s breath in man,” “exalted manna,” “the Milky Way,” and “the land of spices.”
I found that learning the poem took time, which tried my patience. Memorizing a poem is more like cooking a meal with fresh ingredients. Gaining basic information is like ordering a pizza. However, the things you invest in often stay with you. A poem gets “installed.” It will yield like a plant.
I’d heard that with poetry, meaning tends to come later, after listening, speaking, visualizing. Understanding the poem is inseparable from imagining and feeling the words and rhythms. It can’t be reduced to an abstract proposition.
Further, the meaning of a poem is not declared by a teacher. Rather, it’s discovered and experienced. I saw some of what Herbert glimpsed. I participated in his awe. Truth realized is always more meaningful than merely accepting an expert’s opinion.
Since poems are concrete and visual rather than abstract, they light up the imagination and are easier to remember. Most of us have had this experience with songs—they reappear and get “stuck in our heads.”
Dana Gioia also suggested printing out the poem and bringing it on a walk. This was great advice and led to the most exciting part of the experiment. While walking and reciting the poem out loud, I found myself moving my hands and wanting to raise my voice in celebration. But, being self-conscious and cool, however, I was restrained. But I still felt my entire body joining in. I could see the images, hear them, and feel them in my chest.
I experienced the thrill of a poem being embodied. “Prayer” moved from my mind to my throat to my gut. Then back to my thoughts. Poems have a rhythm, a music, that put me in motion. I was no longer an observer but a participant in what Mary Oliver calls “the dance.”
To read the full text of Herbert’s Prayer (I) click the link below