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I remember a thousand years ago when I was at Columbia I memorized the last forty or fifty lines of “Lycidas”—the part of the poem I had always wept over. Nowadays I am always willing to memorize that which makes me weep, but at the time it was a new thing. I was thirty.
I recited it one time to a friend—tears in my eyes—both of us standing on a subway platform, waiting for a Brooklyn-bound L. It was late. A couple came up to us when I was done, and the guy said, “What the fuck was that? I wanna write that shit down!”
This was a deep moment for me. I flashed on the idea that I should write poems that would be recited from memory 350 years after my death, the reciter sixty feet underground below a humming metropolis, and that a couple should walk up to this reciter and say, “What the fuck was that?” I had always, of course, wanted to write good poems, but here I felt I had a real structure. A target.
Now, it’s not surprising that, these days, we do not write with an eye (or better say “ear”) towards being memorized. Nobody memorizes, so why should we bother. Yet this could change. We could utterly change it.
I have this concrete proposal. People should begin readings by reciting one poem—not their own—from memory. It could be a classic, that would be good, but maybe even better would be to recite a poem by one of the other readers, or by a friend. Or best of all: by a poet your own age whom you’ve never met but whose poems you admire. The audience would eat it up. And think how much it would inspire your friends to write better—the prospect of your memorizing their stupid piece of shit and reciting it at Cornell or whatever—!
Fuckit, I’m doing this. This is a good idea.