Choosing the first poem to memorise for my Epic Poetic Odyssey was more difficult than I expected. After all, a poem memorised becomes a part of you.
In Grade 8, I memorised Lewis Carroll’s fantastical nonsense poem Jabberwocky, and it’s still with me. Maybe the burbling Jabberwock and the beamish boy are to blame for my bent towards fantastic adventures starring 11-year-old boys (Toby Fitzroy, I’m looking at you.) Now there’s a thought to ponder!
What if instead I’d memorised a religious verse like a segment of Milton’s Paradise Lost or something political like Hannah More’s Slavery: A Poem? Would I somehow be a different person today? A zealot or maybe an avenger. I wonder…
On a more practical note, I wanted to pick a poem that’s realistic in length and difficulty. It would be seriously embarrassing if I failed in the first month of my Odyssey, so, given the rusty state of my rote memory skills, I decided twenty-five lines or fewer would be best.
The poem had to speak to me in some way, either in form or lyricism, theme or allusion. Thirty-something years on from eighth grade, I’m no longer in a Jabberwocky frame of mind. I want a poetic punch in the solar plexus. Or at least a nudge that tickles, excites, or stirs me.
So with my criteria in mind, a short list of possibilities coalesced:
- The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
- A Frog’s Fate by Christina Rossetti
- Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116
- Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson
- A Martian Sends a Postcard Home by Craig Raine
- Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley
And the Winner Is…
The first poem of my Epic Poetic Odyssey will be The Second Coming. Not exactly the cheeriest poem, but its timelessness speaks to me. Even though The Second Coming was written nearly a hundred years ago, Yeats’s observations about a world spinning out of control could be penned today. For example:
…Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
That pretty much sums up the maniacal circus that is world politics today. With the pillars of democracy teetering under the weight of insanity (or, in Yeats’s more poetic phrasing, “passionate intensity”), even the stoutest heart starts looking for a Second Coming.
Plus, it’s neat to see Yeats’s poignant phrases echoed in well-known literary works such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958) and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968).
You can read the whole poem here. Tell me in the comments what you think of my first choice.
Watch This Space
So my assignment is set. For the next four weeks, I’ll be committing this poem to memory. Watch this space for resources, mnemonic devices, poetic interludes, and interviews with some of the delightful poets and poetry lovers I’m getting to know on my Epic Poetic Odyssey.
Image Credits via Unsplash
Photo by Jon Flobrant
Photo by Joshua Earl
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John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,