Wednesday, February 24, 2010

To love poetry

Lydia Chukovskaya explains:

"If you love poetry, you commit poems to memory right away, and if you cannot memorize them right away -- you won’t let the book out of your hands until you’ve learned by heart the lines that touched you, so that from now on you never have to part from them again: they will be with you while you’re working at the kerosene stove or at the washtub, on the street, in a tram, in a prison cell -- you will continue to repeat them to yourself over and over."

I have not memorized a poem by heart in a long time. Perhaps I don't love poetry enough. Contemporary American poetry seems too intimidating for memorization -- and when you memorize you lose all the complex graphic layout of it. Some of contemporary poetry seems to be meant only to exist on paper. And what would be the point of memorizing poetry? When I was in school, my friends and I used to read poems to each other on the way home from school. I used to read poems to them on the phone, at night. We memorized poetry for Russian and English lessons, and then also performed them at school evenings, birthday parties, etc. When I was very little, my parents coaxed me to read poetry out loud at parties for their friends -- it was a skill to show off.

One thing I'm growing more and more confident about is that to become a better writer, I need to read more English-language poetry. It teaches you to read and use language in a different way -- focus on different types of structures and different ways of producing meaning. Perhaps, it's not just a matter of reading poetry, but of memorizing it and repeating it to myself while I wash dishes or walk to the gym -- until the words and structures become my own, until they become a part of my own vocabulary. It's an intimidating task. I won't start right away.

It's also interesting to note how "the prison cell" is always at the top of Chukovskaya's mind. She speaks from experience.

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