Poems by Heart

My parents just visited for my birthday and we talked a lot about memorizing poems. My dad is currently memorizing a handful, and while here, he memorized one of my favorite poems, "A Scrawl," by James Whitcomb Riley. It's the poem that ignited my love of poetry, and it's in Afterwhiles, a book given by my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother in 1900, when she was 15 and they were friends, not yet married. That book was on the bookshelf in our den as I grew up, and I was enamored with it, constantly pulling it from the shelf and reading the page it naturally opened to--page 63, to the love poem "A Scrawl." 

Click to enlarge

I read that poem so many times I unknowingly memorized it by sixth grade, and it has always been with me. I love its music, and as a kid I always loved that it's doing what it says it cannot do, which is express the speaker's feelings. It was a hint early on that with a poem, you can say what you might not really know how to say. A few years ago, one of my best friends, Jane, read it at my wedding. 

Click to enlarge; rings by Sparklegarden

Another poem I love and have memorized much of (not all! maybe one day...), is Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road," which I read constantly on my mostly-solo 17-country backpacking trip after college. It's a poem I still recite to myself when I'm stressed or feeling anxious, and for my 32nd birthday this past weekend, I had rings made that bear the first three words, which are sometimes all I need for a sense of calm to start flowing. "Afoot and lighthearted..." Just saying those words to myself, I already start to breathe a little more easily.


Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

Read the full poem here and check out...
...this Dover edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass for <$5
...this paperback edition of James Whitcomb Riley's Afterwhiles for <$10
...this New York Times article on memorizing poetry
...Sparklegarden on Etsy for [custom/poetry] jewelry