By Heart

Collected Thoughts at the End of The Memory Book Project

I lost an email just now. A long one, probably three or four pages if I’d hand-written it, composed to a new friend with whom I’m discussing some non-trivial topics, like spiritual direction. So not the kind of email I write quickly or casually. My mail client froze when I hit “send,” and long story short: athough there is no away on the internet, there is also no here and no there for this email. 

I feel a bit the way I would feel if I had in fact written it out longhand, and later discovered it was never delivered, lost in transit. A single, unrepeatable thing is gone, without having served its created purpose.

My calendar says the other thing I should do today is think about the recently completed Memory Book Project. So this is the aspect I’m thinking about first: the analog uniqueness of the project’s physical representation. “A single copy, written by hand, of the particular poems that allow themselves to echo in my particular memory over time.” 

I’m realizing that these elements—physicality, non-repeatability, and hand-writing—are actually central to every one of my projects to date.

Interesting. And not really surprising. Inescapably, much of our commerce, communication, learning, entertainment, even our sense of ourselves as community members, is digital: fast, broad, placeless, intangible, stored, encrypted, replayable, searchable, etc. That an artist would focus her creative work in such a time on the things we’ve tended to leave behind in this exchange is…pretty predictable, I think. This is a thing artists publicly and intentionally do: converse with our moment. 

Converse with, in this case, the idea of there being a moment, which is fleeting, which is fully lived, which is now a memory. 

Maybe. Technology has always interacted with memory. Having information skimmable on Wikipedia via your mobile makes you less likely to retain details. Cameras make you less likely to remember a scene you photographed. Literacy itself—the act of writing something down or reading it later—makes us less likely to recall that something, word for word or idea for idea.

I’m not making a moral judgment. I think the observation is important, as perspective necessary to actually seeing who we are, who we were, who we want to be. One thing we are (speaking for my own country, and its international influence) is a culture that tends to export our memories. 

A lot of them, these days, go to “the cloud.”¹ Where sometimes they get lost, as any memory might, in any respository: a book, a database, a human being. 

This project is not about loss. 

Or maybe it is; I started it with lines that included these: “Another reason [to make this book] is that someday I will die.”

This project is also about adding, though. It added things to my life I didn’t expect. 

What did I expect? To get better at slowness and depth. Verdict: Maybe. It’s an ongoing struggle. “Better” is a loaded term, and one difficult to quantify here. But certainly I have lived intentionally with that struggle.

What else? To find out if and how poetry is different in the heart than on the page. Verdict: Absolutely. 

You can meet a poem on a page, or beneath trees and beside a fire when someone else is speaking it. This can be a wonderful meeting. It will be a different meeting again when you memorize that same poem, and ever after speak it from the place of its secret names, intimately. 

This is why we say “by heart.”²

When I started this project, I noted the doubt I felt whenever I imagined committing a poem to memory. This has not changed. I’ve done it over and over for a year now, and I like doing it, and I still I wonder each time if this is the one that just won’t stick. 

One way I dealt with this apprehension was to run straight at the difficult poems. I tell myself frequently that “You can do hard things.” Memorizing a challenging poem is low-stakes proof I can access whenever I need it. I was worried that I might need to build up to memorizing poems longer than a few lines, or old and weird ones. I value courage, and the way my art teaches me to pursue it. Here was a reason to take my courage in my two hands and try to do something hard.

I didn’t think about this until after, but the corrollary to “you can do hard things” is “you have done hard things before.”I recall, for example, memorizing all of The Highwayman at age fifteen.³

And it turns out memorizing poems is not like rocket science. It’s not even like strength-training. You can pick a long one or a hard one and you can learn it right now. 

How do you do this? I don’t know. Here’s how I do it: I break it into a bunch of small pieces and I learn the first one. Then I learn the second by adding it to the first. Then I learn the third by adding it to the first and second. Et cetera. 

I do this while walking, almost invariably, because walking (alone) gives me the emotional solitude I need to let down my guard. My guard is habitually very up, and it has to be down for me to learn something I’m unsure about. 

I also memorize poems while walking because it’s sympathetic magic: the rhythm of walking is the rhythm of poetry. 

Maybe you’re thinking: this sounds like it takes a long time. It does! I like that about it.

“Memorize one poem” is not a neat calendar entry I can schedule from 8 to 8:30am every Thursday. Memorizing is not hard, but it does like its freedom. I need my mind to be unconcerned with constraints. Like how much time I have allocated to do this thing. 

Memorizing takes the time it takes. And the space in your brain, too. 

Our culture is hyper-scheduled and productivity-obsessed. I don’t want to be either of those things, but pushing against them in my own life is harder than it sounds. They’re “the way things are.” Memorizing poems embodies resistance to them both.

I have just said that memorizing poetry is not hard, but I suspect there is room for interpretation and argument here. 

Rote memorization is something I showed aptitude for as a very young child. I also have quite a lot of practice at it, from a lifetime of singing: I learn tunes by ear and words by heart, quickly. 

I do still have to work at it, which might also indicate that the word I am looking for to describe the process is not as easy as “easy.” 

I find this work deeply and quietly pleasing. Possibly its difficulty is actually part of that: it’s engaging, in that sweet space between knowing you have the skills necessary to learn this thing, and not knowing yet whether you can learn this particular thing. Working in this generative gap is an underestimated source of pleasure and satisfaction, generally.

The feeling of accomplishment is pleasant too, and that gift keeps on giving, every time you speak a poem. 

One thing I like particularly, about both the work and the accomplishment, is memorizing those long and difficult poems I touched on earlier. I also like how speaking a poem myself, without having to read if off a page, frees my mind to engage with it in ways it could not before. 

For reasons I don’t now remember—I think having to do with getting a couple of contextless lines stuck in my head from dim memories of high school English—I decided I need to have Dover Beach by heart. 

Dover Beach is not short; it’s not easy to understand or parse with the eye; it’s full of alien Victorian rhyme-scheme and word-choice and ideas about religion. Memorizing it felt like an accomplishment—and also, memorization accomplished a great deal of the work of making such a poem explicable. Now, I don’t have to think about how to understand a line like “…down the vast edges drear/ And naked shingles of the world,” which is, to my eye at least, an awkward bit of writing. Learn it by heart and speak it aloud in context of its stanza, and it’s not awkward at all. You can feel it. 

Adam Zagajewski’s poetry is similiarly difficult for me. It’s not a difference of eras this time (Zagajewski was born in 1945, and died just last month), but something about the rhythms. Maybe something about it being translated from a language I don’t speak. Also the way his stanzas tend to jump into an entirely fresh thought; it doesn’t become apparent until later where the connection is. His Shell was one of the first I memorized for this project, and doing so gave the poem an emotional and vocal heft for me that was absent from the printed page. 

Poets do a bunch of the crucial work for you, but if you’re willing to meet them halfway with your own breath and effort, the reward is great.

Fun fact about memory: it’s not linear. 

You memorize a poem, and you’ve got it. You can feel that you do. It’s yours forever. Sometimes. 

Just now I tried to recite Shell, and I couldn’t make the jump over the stanza break from “a gusting wind lifted the spruce branches like wings” to “I’ve never visited the ancient cities.” (I mean, come on. What?) 

Where did the poem go when I memorized it? Who knows. So who knows, also, where it comes from when I summon it. Sometimes it seems to come from very far indeed. Maybe our memories are off having adventures when we’re not actively conversing with them. 

Maybe summon is the wrong verb. I mean, I can summon my thoughts, but I don’t like this metaphor of command. There’s very little a human is in command of, really, including most of what we think of as our “selves.” I like the metaphor of conversation better. It’s kinder. It’s more likely to produce results I actually want to live by. 

Speaking of which. This project’s job was not to produce anything, yet it has also produced results to live by.

I frequently find comfort, advice, companionship, and encouragement inside the small library I now carry about inside my head and heart. And inside the act of speaking a page from that library in my own voice. It’s a powerful act to embody the comfort, advice, companionship, or encouragement you need. 

More simply, I’ve found out how much I enjoy speaking poetry. Not necessarily to anyone else;⁴ the feeling and the sound are physically and mentally rewarding in themselves. 

I was talking with a friend the other day about the ways our culture socializes us around pleasure. We look at it askance if it’s not buying or selling or preaching anything. We tend to feel uncomfortable doing something only because it’s pleasant; shouldn’t it also be optimizing or improving us, or helping the less-fortunate?

Finished with The Memory Book Project, I haven’t kept memorizing poems for the challenge, for the way the act resists capitalism, even for the comfort and advice. I do it because it feels good. Pleasure is enough of a reason to learn beautiful words by heart. 

1. Spoiler: not a real cloud. I am both frustrated and smugly satisfied by our inability to stop naming our various constructions after items in the natural world. Apple, Blackberry, Cloud… 

2. In fact, I am not convinced this is the reason, etymologically speaking. But it’s a good reason to use the phrase today.

3. I have been obsessed with Anne of Green Gables, books and miniseries, since my single digits. It’s possible you do not know what this footnote has to do with the sentence I’ve attached it to. Which is fine; this is an obscure and specific reference. 

4. Although that can be pleasant too, it’s presently something I think about more than do.

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