I thought it was the sake and the kanpai toasts that made me unable to remember a poem at a party a couple of weeks ago. Not that I'm one who recites poetry at parties, I'm too self-conscious for that. But on this particular night everyone but me had sung a song, performed a magic trick, or made some gesture of good fellowship towards the group. It was down to me. I was in good spirits and good company. Someone called for a poem. Surely I must know a poem I could recite? Even, if only out of desperation, a poem I had written myself?
The next morning I got on the job of memorizing a poem. Not being able to recite a poem at a party was an embarrassment greater than reciting a poem at a party. I wouldn't be caught flat footed and empty handed again. I was determined to find a poem that would become my signature poem in the event I was ever again in that social situation. Where to start? Which poem to choose?
I established some criteria. It needed to be short and easy to memorize. Its subject needed to be personal, yet universal, and contain some small truth. And I wanted a poem that revealed something about me. A poem I wish I had written.
I turned to Ted Hughes's By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember (Faber and Faber, 1997) for both suggestions about good poems to memorize, and to refresh myself with his method for memorization.
The contents page was packed with fantastic poems. Sonnets by Shakespeare and Keats called out be chosen. I imagined myself quoting an historical masterpiece, representing poetry well. Then there was "The Jabberwocky," which would show how much plain fun language can be, and would crack up my niece and nephew. But there was the chance to sing Dylan Thomas to consider. So much could be learned by breathing his breath. Frost and Bishop made me proud of our native poets, and I thought I should stand up and represent for them. I was becoming overwhelmed by the options. I took a step back.
A day or two later the poem I would choose to memorize surfaced in my mind. I had asked myself: what would I have liked to have said to my friends at the party that night? William Stafford's words were my answer.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that's what I say.
I'm in the process of memorizing this poem. But just in case it doesn't make its way from mind to mouth after a round of sake toasts, I have a backup. A poem recited by Muhammed Ali. A poem that meets many of my criteria. In particular, it is a poem that perfectly expresses how I felt at the party that night. The next time I look out from myself to my friends, I will say: