Now Is the Perfect Time to Memorize a Poem

Powerful writing, by Matthew Schneier.

Most of the essay is on the power of poetry as an oral art form. (See also Poetry is for the Ear and Poetry Writing Hacks: Top 10 Tips.) But I blogged it because of the paragraphs about the author’s father.

Right now, a machine is breathing for my father, buying time in a ward I can neither visit nor see. The doctors talk a lot about time: How fast or slow he breathes — COVID comes for your breath — and how quick or sluggish his blood pressure, the beat of his heart. There is almost nothing I can do but call his carers, wait, and hope. In that morass of powerlessness, I’ve found myself reciting the snippets of poems I’ve picked up along the way. If nothing else, their meter overtakes the racing of mine. Each one is an occasion, and the good ones are wise. I return a lot to the final stanza of James Merrill’s “In Nine Sleep Valley,” which seems suddenly to speak directly to our impotent quarantine:

Take these verses, call them today’s flower,
Cluster a rained-in pupil might have scissored.
They too have suffered in the realms of hazard.
Sorry things all. Accepting them’s the art.

Here in our realms of hazard, we — I — need these talismans. They push us forward, years or centuries later, on toward Canterbury, past the dry, brittle drought of March. Once, I learned Carl Phillips’s “Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm” for the pleasure of it. “There are those / whom no amount of patience looks likely / to improve ever, I always said,” and I said it out loud as Phillips had. Then, I was a senior in college, pushing off uncertainly into the world. Now, I hope and believe in it, as a charm, as a balm. The poem is grim, but it turns. We are all, in our present cataclysm, me and Dad and all the rest of us, “like a building for a time condemned, / then deemed historic.” I count on its final promise, held dangling over a line break’s edge. “Yes,” Phillips ends. “You / will be saved.” —Matthew Schneier, Cut