Vade Mecum

Some friends of mine know that I like to memorize poems. Part of it is the challenge, but more importantly if you memorize something you can carry it with you always. This is especially true for poetry. Our visual memory is flawed and incomplete, but a poem, made up of the atomic units of words, is a thing we can (with a bit of effort) have within us perfectly.

While it’s a nifty party trick to be able to uncork a great poem from memory, if you memorize a poem you will find yourself coming back to it, reading it in your head as you walk in the woods or ride the subway or drive to the store. You might recite a section aloud to test out a different emphasis on a word or line break, and find rhythms that makes sense to you. This invariably yields a deeper understanding of the poem.

Relevant sections of a poem may pop into mind when you hear a particular phrase, or feel a sentiment. Watching the swirling water in a brook might recall these lines, and launch a meditation on epistemology (as they did for me):

I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
running like a stream through the geography of my work.

— from “Corson’s Inlet,” by A. R. Ammons

Photo by Luke Pennystan on Unsplash

Art, literature, dance, films — they don’t want to be passive. They want to be active and they want to engage with your life and the events of your life. They want to rattle around in your brain and knock against your experience, argue with your preconceptions, ratify your virtues, fuse with your thoughts and come out changed from the process. And if the work is good, maybe you’ve changed too. Otherwise, what’s the point?

That’s what I’m in it for.

Christopher Quirk, untitled (binary), oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in., 2020.

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