I’ve always memorized poetry for its entertainment value. The natural accompaniments to walking and driving, especially when one is alone, are singing and recitation. The first poet I chose to memorize on my own, apart from school assignments (“What is so rare as a day in June?”), was T.S. Eliot (a junior high school crush). Shakespeare, Keats, Joyce, Allen Tate and Howard Nemerov followed. Voluntary memorization is a tribute and the truest act of criticism.
In Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2014), John Drury describes “Prayer (I)” as “an ecstatic and delicious list” of prayer’s qualities. The poem induces a “giddy exhilaration,” Drury says, and I find it so. Perhaps exhilaration is an essential quality in the poems I choose to memorize. Drury writes:
“The images, each of them a delicious surprise, come tumbling out headlong – five in a row in line 9 and twenty-six in all. The sheer joy of it all in a sonnet devoted to the sober subjects of prayer astonishes its readers. The mystical and the sensual are old partners.... the happy wit of this scrapbook of little pictures makes for something less grand, a more accessible and somehow English sublimity. ‘Something understood’ ties everything up into the pragmatic benefit of praying: that it settles the mind.”