Thursday, May 24, 2012

Life List: Memorize & Internalize 10 Poems

I've always liked memorizing poems, and since memorizing 10 is on my life list, I figured I'd bring us on a guided tour through the ones I've already memorized, and how they've treated me through the years.

A Sad Child (Margaret Atwood)
You're sad because you're sad.
It's psychic. It's the age. It's chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
you need to sleep.

Well, all children are sad
but some get over it.
Count your blessings. Better than that,
buy a hat. Buy a coat or pet.
Take up dancing to forget.

Forget what?
Your sadness, your shadow,
whatever it was that was done to you
the day of the lawn party
when you came inside flushed with the sun,
your mouth sulky with sugar,
in your new dress with the ribbon
and the ice-cream smear,
and said to yourself in the bathroom,
I am not the favorite child.

My darling, when it comes
right down to it
and the light fails and the fog rolls in
and you're trapped in your overturned body
under a blanket or burning car,

and the red flame is seeping out of you
and igniting the tarmac beside you head
or else the floor, or else the pillow,
none of us is;
or else we all are.

Some of Margaret Atwood's poetry can be a little passe.  Even pieces I really love are a little much sometimes ("Siren Song" anyone?).  So, when Sharon Olds gave us the assignment to memorize one poem, I was a little worried about being seen as lame if I chose one of her pieces.  I've wanted to memorize "A Sad Child" for some time, but decided instead to memorize a poem I'd read many years ago, which had stuck with me, though I'd forgotten the name of the poet: "I Go Back to May 1937." When I went to look it up, and discovered it was actually Sharon's poem, I decided not to be the world's biggest (if inadvertent) brown-noser, and went back to memorizing "A Sad Child."  I think both poems get to the heart of childhood pain in similar ways, and "A Sad Child" was the very first poem I read (in a book that Roger gave me, no less) that made me think, Oh - poetry.  Yes, this is something.   The book it comes from, Morning in the Burned House, is a really lovely little collection, and a good introduction to reading single-author collections of poetry.  I could not be more pleased with the journey that book started for me.

And now, we've gone through all the poems I've memorized thus far.  I need at least two more to memorize to reach my little goal (one of them may indeed be "I Go Back to Pay 1937"), but of course, I want to memorize many, many more over the course of my life.  If you have any suggestions for pieces you've memorized or pieces you would love to memorize, please let me know in the comments.


  1. OH man I have always loved "I Go Back to May 1937".

  2. I still remember the very first poem that struck me, For Each of You by Audre Lorde. I found it in some literary zine or other in high school. (You can find it here -

    The poet who made me love poetry though, and realize that it can be accessible to everyone was Nicole Blackman. My copy of her book Blood Sugar came with me in my carry-on when I moved back to VT with only the one small suitcase, a duffel bag and my cat. I can still lose myself in that book. You can check it out on amazon with the look inside feature. ( My two favorites, both of which I've memorized Thirst and Drown can be read, starting on page 24. I still pull it out at least twice a year and read it.

    1. Thanks for sharing all of these! Roger loves Audre Lorde so much he's thinking of getting one of her lines tattooed on his arm. This poem is beautiful.

      I've never read any of Nicole Blackman's work, but these are so powerful. I can definitely see why you keep coming back to it, and why it followed you back to Vermont. What strong words.

  3. Lovely choice! And how lucky you are to take a class with Sharon Olds. She is incredible.

    1. Thank you! I feel blessed everyday. Sharon has an incredibly warm soul, even warmer than I would have expected from her work.

  4. I learned this when I was in the 4th grade

    by Edgar A. Guest

    Figure it out for yourself, my lad,
    You've all that the greatest of men have had,
    Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes
    And a brain to use if you would be wise.
    With this equipment they all began,
    So start for the top and say, "I can."

    Look them over, the wise and great
    They take their food from a common plate,
    And similar knives and forks they use,
    With similar laces they tie their shoes.
    The world considers them brave and smart,
    But you've all they had when they made their start.

    You can triumph and come to skill,
    You can be great if you only will.
    You're well equipped for what fight you choose,
    You have legs and arms and a brain to use,
    And the man who has risen great deeds to do
    Began his life with no more than you.

    You are the handicap you must face,
    You are the one who must choose your place,
    You must say where you want to go,
    How much you will study the truth to know.
    God has equipped you for life, but He
    Lets you decide what you want to be.

    Courage must come from the soul within,
    The man must furnish the will to win.
    So figure it out for yourself, my lad.
    You were born with all that the great have had,
    With your equipment they all began,
    Get hold of yourself and say: "I can."

    1. This is such a great poem! Thanks for sharing it with me!