I can remember the first bad grade I ever got. I was in the sixth grade, and the assignment was to memorize this poem. I had no interest in whether the frost was on the punkin, and simply didn’t try very hard when it came to memorizing it. We didn’t discuss the poem much, or talk about why it was interesting; this was a straight up memorization exercise and although I got a bad grade, I couldn’t bring myself to care very much. Ironically, I must have done at least some work on the assignment because to this day I remember the first stanza of this poem!
I wouldn’t memorize another poem until I was in an undergraduate public speaking class (although by this time, I had grown to love poetry and probably knew more by heart than I realized). The assignment was a memorized speech, and most of us in the class did poems or songs. I chose the first part of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, a very fun poem to memorize and recite.
As a young adult, I didn’t have much reason to memorize poetry, and therefore didn’t. About a year ago though, that changed when I began running consistently for the first time since I was in high school cross country. As a teenager, running was easy: you run as fast as you can until it’s time to stop. For an adult trying to pick it back up it’s a little different. Getting through those early days of pushing myself to run for a mile, or two, or three, was tough. I don’t own an iPod, and I wanted something to occupy my mind besides thoughts of how hard it was. I remembered reading, years ago, that the author Martha Nussbaum would memorize music- such as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’– and run with her own soundtrack in her head. I decided to use my running time similarly, but I would memorize poetry. It turned out to be the perfect way to help me push through those difficult first miles.
I was two poems in when my poem-memorization project fell by the wayside; running became more comfortable and I started just enjoying the time alone with my thoughts. I recently set out to increase my mileage and once again, as I push through the hard parts I’ve been looking for another poem to learn during my runs. My only criteria is that the poem speaks to me in some way, and that it’s a reasonable length. I think I’ve settled on this one, but I’m open to hearing more suggestions!