Thursday, October 8, 2015

10 Poems and Passages to Learn by Heart

Here’s the full text of the poem.
I owe my love of poetry to a lawyer -- and today, National Poetry Day 2015, I'd like to thank him.

Mr. Sullivan (he insisted his first name was “Mister”) was my first high school English teacher in Wayne, New Jersey.

To pass his one and only test one semester, you were required to stand in front of the entire class and flawlessly, and without notes, recite William Cullen Bryant’s long poem about death, “Thanatopsis.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Sullivan (a lawyer by trade, who taught only this one class) would sit behind his desk, dispassionately reading the day’s newspaper, which he had extracted from his ever-present black briefcase.

Dressed like a Blues Brother in skinny tie, white shirt and dark-colored suit, Mr. Sullivan – on non-test days – was boyishly irreverent and sharply funny. He was constantly brushing a stray shock of grey hair from his forehead, as if impersonating Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce.

He insisted that learning such a long poem by rote would teach us mental discipline, and that standing proverbially naked in front of our jeering peers at such a tender age would teach us confidence and presentation skills.

He claimed not to care a whit about the poem itself.

But that only made me care all the more. And the memorization – and seeing and hearing the interpretation of each of my classmates – forever changed something in my internal wiring.

To clever Mr. Sullivan… to him who in the love of nature holds communion with her visible forms… I owe undying gratitude.

So, without further ado, here's my recommended list of 10 poems and prose passages to learn by heart:
    1. Sailing to Byzantium -W.B. Yeats
    2. Daddy -Sylvia Plath
    3. somewhere i have never travelled  -E.E. Cummings
    4. I Hear an Army -James Joyce
    5. Annabel Lee (with audio) -Edgar Allan Poe
    6. Dover Beach -Matthew Arnold
    7. To His Coy Mistress -Andrew Marvell
    8. Vladimir Nabokov’s first paragraphs of “Lolita”
    9. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last paragraphs of “The Great Gatsby” (video)
    10. Harper Lee describing Maycomb, Alabama, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Keep this handy. It may someday – like Walt Whitman said about baseball – repair your losses and be a blessing to you.

Many years after high school, I used to recite “Annabel Lee” to my young daughters to get them to go to sleep. Yes, I may have subliminally altered their psyches – but, like Mr. Sullivan, I may also have imprinted on them an everlasting love of our beautiful language along the way.


Update: in March 2019, I posted a few of my own poems to commemorate World Poetry Day and in 2021, I followed prompts to create poems throughout April. More recently, I posted "2 Poems: Experiments in Creativity for Fun, Not Profit" and updated "The Evolution of a Poem, Decades Apart."

Friday, October 2, 2015