The Road to Poetry

I already knew from my own experience that memorizing poetry was doing a work on my interior spaces, but I haven’t tried especially hard to put language around what that work is. I have felt it and known its power, and I have returned time and again to seek out beautiful poetry, to commit the lines to memory, and to give them safekeeping in my heart.

Marilyn McEntyre spoke with precision on these ideas in her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, which I finished reading earlier this week. I kept drawing hearts and stars in the margins by the text that my experience with poetry has confirmed.

Lines known by heart come when you need them. There are lines that make us plunge further into our griefs and rise further into our pleasures, that help us to know our own lives better, to take fuller possession of our experiences...Word by word, the poems we memorize restore to us something that slips away in the polluted streams of ordinary language and lead us to places of clarity and quietness.
— Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

I am sometimes confounded by the depth of love I feel in my heart for words and language. McEntyre affirms my feelings and does this love justice as she reflects on the myriad ways that language becomes us and makes us who we are. She quotes others in a similar vein:

To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force...What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a “pace-maker” in the growth and vital complication of our identity...
— George Steiner, Real Presences

I want words to do their mysterious work on me and on my children all throughout our lives. I love that the words get in there, in our inner rooms, and we can’t get them out.

One brief line of a poem I memorized a few months ago has shaped me, particularly, in the days and weeks since I committed it to memory. From the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, the line is really only half a sentence but it has begun a whole work:

If you can wait, and not be tired by waiting…

Many moments of waiting have brought these few words to mind, unbidden. I wait better after knowing this line. I know how tiresome waiting can be, but I am shaped by Kipling’s exhortation to not be tired by waiting. I was awake in the night for over an hour last night, and as I waited to go back to sleep, I had plenty of time to remind myself about the importance of waiting well and of having poems learned by heart to fill the sleepless moments.

I do not give up on memory work, in the same way that I do not give up on writing. “You can make up all kinds of friendly tricks” for writing, says Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, just as I think you can play around with poetry practice and switch your methods and find what works for you and your family to make memory work a reality. Goldberg encourages a similar idea again later in her book: "The important thing was never to give up the relationship with writing, no matter how many different tactics I may have tried.”

You can begin at any time to have a relationship with poetry learned by heart, and no matter how many times you leave the path or forget to practice or lose sight of why it even matters, you can come back. You have a lifetime to keep at it, a lifetime that may not be the same as the one you would have lived had you not become a poetry person.

The other day, the kids and I were working on some memorized poems during Morning Time. Story was going through her whole A.A. Milne list, and in between each poem she recited, the boys took turns saying a poem from their lists. Toward the end of our time, it was Bauer’s turn to say “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, and since I had been reviewing this poem to myself on a recent walk, I decided to join in with him to say it aloud together.

As soon as Bauer and I finished, Cash, unannounced, began reciting part of the same poem, or so I thought….


It was a spectacular moment of memory serving Cash in the best way, a way that brought spontaneity and fun and laughter to the room. Many moments of serious attention and striving to remember the words gave way to the joy that can come when the words are there, just waiting to be recalled when the need or desire arises. I had no idea Cash had memorized this funny little poem from this poetry book I bought him for his birthday last year, but it reminded me of why we do this, and keep doing it.


The road we are taking is the road to poetry. I highly recommend it. And if you need some poems to get you headed in that direction, I made a printable list with some of my favorites that the kids and I have memorized.

A student in one of Marilyn McEntyre’s poetry classes asked, in a moment of frustration, why people would take the time to study poetry. Her response fits perfectly with how I feel. answer my student’s question, I brought it down to two points: “One, poetry makes me happy, and two, I can’t think of many things that are more useful than this.”
— Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies