The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Learning by heart Mary Oliver

Rachael Conlin Levy

I’ve carried a poem in my pocket, or phone case, or purse for months. Sometimes I’ve used it to mark my place in whatever book I’m reading that night, and will unfold it to read aloud, like a prayer, before I fall asleep. The poem is a thin column on a sheet of paper, torn in half, creased and softened by my fingers.  Habitually I copy other writers’ thoughts into my notebooks, their phrases pressed like roses between the pages of my childhood Bible, saved to remember, inspire or comfort a future self, but rare is a poem to be found there, and definitely not this one. No, this one I want in my head.

My memorization is slow. The poem’s long and I’m preoccupied, so my mind struggles with phrases as foreign as another language. But it’s this poem — raw as a cut, aching in its directness — that I need, want, crave to internalize, to make my own. When life swamps me, I turn to poetry. I’m not alone.

This is the second poem I will’ve memorized. The first was “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley, written in 1885. The language and morality woven through the poem about naughty children and their unlucky fate made it a strange choice for my teen-age self to recite under fluorescent lights in a school cafeteria. I can’t puzzle it out, but no matter — 100 years after its writing, the poem won me a blue ribbon. Years later, I recited it to my children, though I waited for a black night and a burning fire before gathering them close to retell the cautionary tale.

Here’s Riley reading “Little Orphant Annie” on a 1912 phonograph recording published by Victor Talking Machine Company:

Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, said in a 2010 interview with poet Elizabeth Alexander that she has to be vulnerable to take in poetry.

“It can hurt like beautiful music can hurt. I have to feel strong enough or destroyed enough to take in poetry,” Tippett said.

“That’s a beautiful way of putting it,” Alexander replied.

A few years ago, one of my sisters memorized Robert Frost’s “Birches.” She’d moved into this poem’s landscape of ice and weariness, and it was a good poem to learn by heart. I like that phrase and I like Frost — for his language that likens bent branch and trailing leaves to “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun” and for his honesty.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I thought about memorizing this poem. But this is my sister’s poem. And Frost’s. Instead I’ve chosen Mary Oliver, whose poems are striking in beauty and bluntness. Or maybe her poem has chosen me. Writing a poem, Oliver says in her book “A Poetry Handbook,” is a love affair between poetry and the soul. Reading a poem allows us to succumb to the spellbinding power of rhythm, she said. I’d add that memorizing a poem is a chance to press ear to breast and listen to another heart dance. As for my choice of poems, I think you’ll understand why.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting their bad advice—

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do—

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Learning this poem has itself become a journey. I forget about it for days, sometimes weeks, and then find it in the drier, having fallen out of a pair of jeans. Unfolded, re-read, slipped back into a pocket, I carry the laundry basket upstairs, reciting, sometimes changing it slightly – One day I finally knew what I had to do, and began, though the voices around me kept shouting — until I forget and go quiet. Rather than allow passages, phrases and words regularly copied into a notebook to slip away, the poet Molly Spencer described the evolution of her reader’s notebook and how it came to strengthen her writing practice.

“As I read, I circle and underline, check and star, make notes on the poem’s architecture. I jot down words that seem important, complex, or rich in some way, or that are just beautiful. For many years, I wrote lists of words from what I was reading on a sheet of looseleaf, and then dropped it in my file folder called “Wordbanks.”

“Then the nature of my jottings grew. I began copying down lines that were especially interesting to me maybe because of their syntax, or because of a particularly stunning metaphor. I’d take little notes about themes, elements of craft, signature moves of the poet I was reading.

“After a while, I’d end up with all these looseleaf pages … and it all began to feel unwieldy, so I started keeping my jottings in a notebook instead. Thus: the reading notebook. … Many times, when I need just the right word during revision, I’ll page through lists of words in my reading notebook … and find that word. Or I’ll go back to the jotted-down lines and look for a syntactical pattern that might help unstick a stuck poem.”

For me, a revisit to old notebooks has been as rare as a Bible reading, but I want that to change. I want my notebooks to become less a catch-basin for the ideas of other writers, and more a record of an evolving conversation between me and these mentors and teachers. So I’ve taken this advice, like Oliver’s poem, to heart and began.

I want to thank Sarah from Edge of Evening for sharing Molly Spencer’s writing advice, to Shawna Lemay of Calm Things for bringing to my attention the comics of Summer Pierre, and Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings recommendation of “A Poetry Handbook.”

5 responses to “Learning by heart Mary Oliver”

  1. Andrea says:

    Wow, that poem’s just perfect. Love your quiet, careful thinking and telling. And this poem. I see what you feel in it. I think I will copy it down in my notebook, too.

  2. I’m glad you like it, Andrea.

  3. Molly says:

    Rachel, this is a beautiful post. I love the way you write about memorization (and I know that Mary Oliver poem — it’s one of my touchstones). Thanks for the link re: my reading notebook.

  4. Thanks, Molly. I’m glad I discovered your blog.

  5. Sarah says:

    Rachael, I read this while we were on holiday & even now, over a month later, I keep thinking of you & your Mary Oliver poem. I hope that it’s still giving you the strength to continue. Such a perfect choice! So, know that I’m thinking of you & waiting for what may come (no pressure!). And thank you for sending me back *again* to Molly’s words, and also back to Oliver’s ‘A Poetry Handbook’ — I’m marvelling all over again at how much wisdom she fits between such slender covers.

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