Volume 22, Number 48 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 9 – 15, 2010
Downtown Notebook: Feeling poetry’s call along the Hudson
By Wickham Boyle
T.S. Elliot’s oft quoted stanza regarding April, National Poetry month is this:
APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Many times we come to poetry through snippets or discarded hanks of words, or simple skeins knitted together, but it is rare in modern times, for any of us to know poems by heart. Back in the day the nuns, or school marms, or assiduous English teachers would make wee students stand and deliver the line “By the shores of Gitche Gumee” from Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”” or Hopkins’ “Glory be to God for dappled things” or Dickinson’s “I’m nobody ! Who are you?”
These lines come to me now thanks to what is left of my gigabytes of memory from elementary school, but I wanted, I longed for the ability to unleash a spray of poetry in its entirety that would sooth my own savage beast, yes perhaps impress a dinner guest or two, or just calm me on a weigh-laid flight. And so I began a project I call Memory& Movement.
On Jan. 1, I began to learn poems by heart. At the same time I began to walk along the Hudson River in earnest. It was a duel purposing: pushing myself to move more while assuaging what I felt was the boredom of walking by — tricking my brain to be active and learn poems. The undertaking has been incredible and more wide reaching than expected. And so as a homage to April, our country’s poetry month, I want to unfold the plan and invite others to join me.
One of the stunning things that stuck me as I wandered up and down the Hudson River in the cold winter air learning John Donne’s “The Good Morrow” was that the richness of language could be a balm to a frazzled modern soul. In attempting to capture the pace and rhythm and word order of for instance:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we loved? were we not weaned til then?
But sucked on country pleasures childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven-Sleepers’ Den?
‘Twas so: but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired and got,’twas but a dream of thee.
This glorious first stanza took me weeks to stick into my brain. I paced back and forth on the river carrying words with me in my pocket, or I folded the poems into my wallet to take out and peruse in lines, or before the lights went down in theaters, or to glance at while cooking. And what I discovered would certainly come as no surprise to Stanley Kunitz, one of the founders of Poets House, also located Downtown on the Hudson River and himself a great poet. Kunitz said that poetry and by extension Poets House is “ an active expression of imagination.” And we all know that the more we imagine the richer our lives are.
And so I continued picking a poem each month and committing it to deep memory. I recited the poems to cranky god-daughters who couldn’t find the arms of Morpheus for sleep, or to my pottery class, or best gift of all, to my often fearful, fitful brain which has trouble shutting off for sleep. And lo and behold, I saw my fraught, frayed nerves quickly near anesthetized by the glorious, gorgeous words of poets like Donne, Anne Winters, Elizabeth Macklin or Eliott. I was besotted by the words, and pictures they made and adored their sounds in my head.
Here is the second stanza from Anne Winters’ “100 Riverside Drive”:
I let go, as passiviest listeners listen, to sift
the city, naming sounds, for named sounds near
or distant make a depth where my too deft
attention – deep and troubled, city too endeared— can lose itself.
When I feel lost, if I recite loudly in my head “Passivest listeners listen to sift,” and it is as if I am ensorcelled by the sounds and I too let go. The effect is transformative.
After many walks zooming by Poets House, I finally meandered in and found a modern cathedral built to honor the spell under which I had recently fallen sway. Here other writers, parents, thinkers, searchers and listeners, passive or active are finding ways to wedge, insert or slide poetry into their lives.
Watch Poets House as the spring unfolds, as there will be more and more poetry and motion. It will pour out along the Hudson River, in parks and I imagine it will be buzzing out of pedestrians zooming along the streets of Downtown. Stay tuned as the month and season of poetry unfurls itself and again in the words of the bard Kuntz, “Some things cannot be possessed but must be shared.” Here’s to poems filling the air.
Wickham Boyle is a freelance writer living in Tribeca.