A Year of Verse

Today marks the last day of 2018 and reflection on my resolution: to memorize at least one poem each month. And I have—more than 12 poems, more than the calendar dozen— and they run the gamut. I chose them when they spoke to me, or I truly took to heart long time favorites with certain lines that had always been mine, though I’d never grasped the whole. More than a commitment to memorize, however, these poems have become my meditation—and I would recommend the practice to anyone.

One of the highlights of my year occurred in Houston in November. It was a dreary Sunday, the last day of the NCTE Convention, when my friend Dana and I met my son and his girlfriend at the Rothko Chapel. (If you ever get the chance, do not miss this sacred space.) I had learned about the Chapel, and about Rothko himself, from a Oregon Public Broadcast Art Beat, featuring his story. I had known little about him, did not know that he attended the same high school in Portland that I’d attended and only later became a New Yorker. When I’d seen paintings of his at MOMA, frankly, I hadn’t understood, hadn’t really seen them at all. That wasn’t the case on that gray afternoon. The enormous panels, Rothko’s vision, enveloped me, and in the hush as I drifted, I recited the poems I now knew by heart. Later that day, Dana asked me if I’d been reciting my poems. “I wish I had poems,” she said. “It would’ve been perfect.”

This is the gift I gave myself this year:

  • “Ithaka” by CP Cavafy
  • “Alms” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy
  • “maggie and millie and molly and may” by ee cummings
  • “When Meeting the Other” by Paulann Peterson
  • “The Way It Is” by William Stafford
  • “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • “Blessing the Boats” by Lucille Clifton
  • “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz
  • “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish
  • “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
  • “The Truth about Why I Love Potatoes” by McKeel McBride
  • “A Callarse/Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda
  • “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski
  • “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes

Each of these poems arrived home in my heart in 2018; I repeat them when it’s 3 a.m. and the world is too much with me, when I walk the beach and my good fortune overwhelms me. Each one carries with it a wealth of story, pathways to my past and to my future.

Marge Piercy captures the essence of being for me as a now not-so-newly-retired person re-entering the classroom in 2019, “The pitcher cries for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Yet it also invites a story about one of the people who has shaped my life as a lover of language and ideas, Tom Romano. Romano, an amazing human being and teacher, first urged me to open every class with a poem. “You don’t have to teach it,” he’d say, “just let the words sit on the air and in the mind,” as he did with “To Be of Use.”

My finale poem, Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” goaded me. I did not want to tackle it. I’ll be honest. It’s long. It’s a difficult mirror. It prods relentlessly from the inside now. “All, all the stretch of these great green states—/And make America again.” I think about how we’ve gotten it wrong. America never needed to be great again; it just ever needed to be America. Maybe we can tackle that, a joint resolution, in 2019.

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