One of my enduring party tricks — not terribly well loved, though forever delightful to me — is my habit, when drunk, of reciting the opening 18 lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote”: the beginnings of the pilgrimage to Canterbury, when April showers bring the spring after March’s drought. I don’t know if the practice remains, but when I was in high school, it was taught to us by rote, the better for us to get a feel for the cotton-mouth cadence of Chaucer’s Middle English, a language that is legible and incomprehensible at once. Shakespeare’s English, 200 years later, was thorny and gorgeous, riddled with unfamiliar vocabulary, but with the help of endnotes and patience, you could find your footing on the balance beam of its enjambed passages. Middle English was a step further into the shadows. You could sound it out, and trip gratefully over cognates half buried throughout, but it was headachy to parse. Our red-bordered paperback edition, with its burghers on the march, offered a side-by-side translation into modern English.
After learning a chunk of the prologue by heart in the original Middle English, we read most of the actual Tales in the modern. I remember fragments of it: that the Wife of Bath had a gap between her teeth like I do, and it is a sign of lustiness; that the comic potential of kissing someone’s ass is timeless, ageless, and eternal (someone sticks her “nether ye” out a window to receive). But mostly, it is gone, passed out of my mind like a pilgrim picked up and headed to the next town. The prologue in Middle English, syllable by syllable, line by line, remains. Get me a drink and I’ll show you.
It’s no great mystery why. Poetry is sticky. Prose slips. Barbed and spurred, poems catch in your chest; they get stuck in your head like songs. Still, to admit to liking poetry is faintly embarrassing. The familiar stereotypes cling: The old stuff is out of touch; the new is pretentious, mawkish, or insincere. If you charm your beloved with poetry, you’re a troubadour, ridiculous; you might even be a cad. (Poetry can be used and abused. Robert Lowell chopped up his devastated ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters and served them forth in his own poetry collection, The Dolphin.) “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W. H. Auden, one of our greatest poets, famously wrote. “I, too, dislike it,” added Marianne Moore in a poem called “Poetry.” But wait! “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one / discovers that there is in / it after all, a place for the genuine.”
Your results may vary, but I have always found the place for the genuine in poetry to be unlocked not by just reading it but by memorizing it. And it’s a good exercise, in the midst of chaos, to give yourself over to a sound and a rhythm that is not your own. It takes time — you probably have plenty — and effort. But you feel poems differently when you get them by heart and say them out loud. You have to chew them, and their rhythms overpower yours. It frees you up, to submit to them: It’s self-abnegation by incantation, your very own ventriloquist’s act.
The poems I know follow me whether I want them to or not. My repertoire is not wide, and most of it dates back more than a decade. At 15, I played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when I had pink hair and a permanent snarl: Both have since left me, but I still know Puck’s “Now the Hungry Lion Roars” song from the fifth act. At least I know why I know that one. I don’t remember at all how I came to know Ben Jonson’s lovely, tripping little 17th-century ode “To Celia,” the plaint of a lover looking for favor, with several very good pickup lines (“Might I of Jove’s nectar sup, / I would not change for thine”). Jonson sends flowers; Celia returns them. But who could mind! Now they smell like her. You might think that sentiment seems dated until you stumble on “At Baia,” by H.D., the pen name of Hilda Doolittle, a very modern Modernist — radical, bisexual, championed by Ezra Pound, a patient of Dr. Freud. The idea blooms again: a gift of orchids, “flower sent to flower,” “I send you this, / who left the blue veins / of your throat unkissed.”
There’s no sure guide for how or where to start. Reading aloud helps; what’s daunting on the page unclenches and reveals itself. (A revelation: Start at the beginning and read to the end, like any other sentence.) The music that you like will grab you. The hiss of “this” and “kissed”: hypnotic, to me. So are the tumbling cadences of Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” (bonus: You get to bellow, “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon”!) and the pseudo-Stevensian “Jane Awake” by my favorite poet, Frank O’Hara, about his friend, the great painter Jane Freilicher. “Only by chance tripping on stairs / do you repeat the dance” is O’Hara’s windup to his big finish, but, of course, the poem is the dance, diving to its free-falling conclusion. Maybe you want something steadier. I love May Swenson’s “Question,” an existential meditation on the body, its life and afterlife. “Body my house / my horse my hound / what will I do / when you are fallen,” Swenson begins, and the poem clip-clops to its end — it is the sound of horse trot. You could miss that on the page. You learn it by learning it.
For the past few weeks, I have been trying to learn “Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy,” by Donald Justice. It’s a creepy poem, a horny love song to an old dress form that ends up wrestling with some mommy issues, too. It’s not right for right now in any rational way — but nothing is. More than ever, I am leaning into poetry’s sound. Lately, life is quieter and louder, unnervingly so. The streets are emptier, the constant sirens shriller. Ambulances scream past my window day and night — the kind that carted my mother to the hospital, and my father. Each one startles and enrages me. There is no way to shut them off.
Right now, a machine is breathing for my father, buying time in a ward I can neither visit nor see. The doctors talk a lot about time: How fast or slow he breathes — COVID comes for your breath — and how quick or sluggish his blood pressure, the beat of his heart. There is almost nothing I can do but call his carers, wait, and hope. In that morass of powerlessness, I’ve found myself reciting the snippets of poems I’ve picked up along the way. If nothing else, their meter overtakes the racing of mine. Each one is an occasion, and the good ones are wise. I return a lot to the final stanza of James Merrill’s “In Nine Sleep Valley,” which seems suddenly to speak directly to our impotent quarantine:
Take these verses, call them today’s flower,
Cluster a rained-in pupil might have scissored.
They too have suffered in the realms of hazard.
Sorry things all. Accepting them’s the art.
Here in our realms of hazard, we — I — need these talismans. They push us forward, years or centuries later, on toward Canterbury, past the dry, brittle drought of March. Once, I learned Carl Phillips’s “Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm” for the pleasure of it. “There are those / whom no amount of patience looks likely / to improve ever, I always said,” and I said it out loud as Phillips had. Then, I was a senior in college, pushing off uncertainly into the world. Now, I hope and believe in it, as a charm, as a balm. The poem is grim, but it turns. We are all, in our present cataclysm, me and Dad and all the rest of us, “like a building for a time condemned, / then deemed historic.” I count on its final promise, held dangling over a line break’s edge. “Yes,” Phillips ends. “You / will be saved.”
*This article appears in the April 27, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!