Little Profits

One of my New Year’s Projects (resolutions are Stupid, but time-limited projects are Great) is to memorize a bunch of poems. I have a pretty bad memory, which I chalk up to being a future-oriented person. But I love poetry, and have often wished I had more at my fingertips. So in 2020, I’ve been learning a few poems by heart. Trudy is participating too! There are a few poems she’s learning separately, and some we’re learning together.

January’s poem was Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I’ve always loved this, and gosh it is a fun one to say out loud. It’s long, though, and was a difficult start! The best most helpful tool was finding that there are readings of this poem on SPOTIFY, so I could practice this on a commute or bike ride. Really helpful! I have very much enjoyed having this memorized now - it’s got so many great turns of phrase. Plus it is so dramatic! It’s a real barn-burner.

Next up for February was a shorter but weirdly more difficult one, God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins is fun to recite but with tongue-twisty bits and unnatural phrasing, so it took more brute-force memorization. Very satisfying to get correct though, and also audio versions were very helpful. This isn’t my favorite Hopkins but I was intimidated by his phrasing, and limited myself to something that I could find an audio version of. In retrospect the way some of its word choices just don’t translate anymore make this a less valuable poem to have in my pocket. Modern usages of words or phrases undermine what Hopkins is trying to say, so it takes a lot of mental effort to track with. Valuable for what, Matt? I don’t know, it’s not like I’m pulling these out at parties. But when Hopkins says things like ‘it will flame out’ he means that sparks of light and heat will appear - not that it will end. But I do love the rhythm and alliteration: once you get the hang of why do men then now not reck his rod? it is just FUN to say.

March was The Sun says Yes by Adrian Mitchell; Trudy memorized this whole thing with me. It’s a favorite of ours from ‘A Poem for Every Night of the Year’ and we have written our own extra stanzas before, so it was great to work on this together - especially over our spring break road trip in Arizona, where T & I had a lot of hours together to practice.

For April I added the apocalyptic The Second Coming by Yeats, to go along with the world-shaking events of Corona Time. Turns out I don’t really like this poem! This was the first example that turned out not too hard to memorize, but unsatisfying all the same. It's so well-worn that the coinage has lost its shine for me. Most of it feels trite.

May has been Billy Collins’ “The Country”, an old favorite and one that I have often wished I had at my fingertips. It’s a great story-poem, and one with a lot of humor that anybody could appreciate. Plus, Collins’ phrasing is so natural - it felt more like memorizing lines for a play compared to Tennyson or Hopkins. But I still found it useful to have an audio version, and I went so far as to rip an mp3 from a reading on youtube and load it on my phone.

What’s in June? I’m not sure, but I expect to do the St. Crispin’s Day speech around that time of the year, and somewhere in here Coleridge’s Xanadu, since I reference that all the time.

I am super into this project, and with five months in, it seems like a sustainable thing I can do for a year’s span.


(Little Profits?) The title of this note comes from the first line of of Ulysses, the poem I started this exercise with: It little profits that an idle king…