To Memorize A Poem


I met with my faculty advisor today. For the next five months, she will be holding me accountable for everything that I write. We set up a schedule of due dates, she gave me ideas, she told me to buy a roll of butcher paper, tape it all over the walls and map out my dreams. She scribbled down at least 30 books I should read and she asked me if I preferred criticism or encouragement (I asked for a combination of both, but mostly criticism because it’s about time these balls o’ mine dropped a little lower). Then she gave me an assignment: to memorize a poem that I would have to recite to her next semester.

Two weeks ago, I would have cried. Well, outwardly, I would have smiled and nodded because I aim to please but inwardly, I would have groaned and rolled my eyes and then maybe squeezed out a tear or two. Today, I smiled and nodded–because I still aim to please–but I also took her up on the challenge. I’m kind of cheating, though. I already found a poem to memorize.

To Dorothy

You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
You let a weed grow by the mulberry
And a mulberry grow by the house.
So close, in the personal quiet
Of a windy night, it brushes the wall
And sweeps away the day till we sleep.

A child said it, and it seemed true:
“Things that are lost are all equal.”
But it isn’t true. If I lost you,
The air wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow.
Someone would pull the weed, my flower.
The quiet wouldn’t be yours. If I lost you,
I’d have to ask the grass to let me sleep.

-Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell recites this poem every year and though Google searches have proven to me how well known this piece is, I only heard it for the first time several days ago. It’s the first two lines that caught my ear: a delightful play on words that first catches your attention with offense but then unfolds into sweetness. He mentioned how people have taken (and even stolen) these two lines, and that he doesn’t mind. Perhaps a part of writing a poem means to also let it go. Some poets have even spoken about stealing (or “borrowing”) lines from their favorite poems, all to show the range of influence, respect and love for each other. From one poem arises a new one, and from there, another and so forth. It’s almost incestuous. But in a good way. (Is there ever a good way to be incestuous?)

And how many times can I say poem in a single blog post?

Anyway, don’t get any wrong ideas here. I’m not writing poetry. I’m just trying to memorize it. At least, this one. Because I like it. A lot. I still haven’t quite figured out why but I do know that it’s the very first time I heard a poem aloud and instantly remembered the first two lines. But don’t expect more from me than that. I have very little patience for poetry but I’m putting this piece alongside “This Is Just To Say” on my list of Top Two Favorite Non-Rhyming Poem Things.

  1. Who are you and what has Oregon done with my sister?


  2. The best poems to memorize start out with “there once was a man from Nantucket…”



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