On Reading & Reciting Poetry

I have a signed copy of this lovely book from Caroline Kennedy’s Seattle appearance a few years back. I was amazed by how many of these poems she knew by heart, many of which she recited for us  that night. 

I am a terrible memorizer. Memorization is an analytical skill, a counter-intuitive trait to this Random Abstract Global thinker. However, next to trying to remember favorite Scriptures, which I’ve gotten mostly by osmosis lo, these 40 plus years, I do want to get some poetry in my memory banks. As C.S. Lewis said, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” (Thanks to Johnny Anomaly at Creative Coping Podcast for that quote.)

So off we go; there are so many lovely poems to memorize.

Poem Number One-The Singing Bowl, Malcolm Guite

I began memorizing Malcolm Guite’s The Singing Bowl last March after a special retreat  where God gave me a singing bowl as a metaphor for the weekend’s experience. In an effort to remind myself often of what God had done, I committed to the process, which I discovered is very doable if the words rhyme. Meter helps, as well.

Guite’s poem is a sonnet–14 lines written in iambic pentameter, with alternating end rhymes. What is iambic pentameter you ask? For those of us not steeped in Shakespeare’s work, let’s thank Google.

“Iambic pentameter is line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable.”

Read The Singing Bowl and you’ll see what I mean.


Singing Bowl Malcolm Guite

Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

The remarkable thing to me about having this poem in my bones is that I can recall it at any time and do what the words say–slow down my breathing and stop and listen, a practice I desperately need these days.

Poem Number Two-The 23rd Psalm, George Herbert

Over the summer I kept hearing different lines from Psalm 23 in various places and finally decided to memorize it. How hard could it be? It’s only six verses. Well.

Verse one is easy, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Everybody knows that one. I repeated the next lines rather haltingly from what I could recollect but floundered after verse 3.

Then I read George Herbert’s rendering of the 23rd Psalm. Or, as he wrote it, Psalme 23. Herbert was a cleric and poet who wrote in the 1600’s and while his language is full of very old English phrases, the words are incredibly rich. I especially was pleased to find the six verses of this Psalm written in rhyme and they are now in a little plastic envelope sitting on my kitchen windowsill. The theory is I’ll memorize the psalm/poem while I’m doing dishes. So far I’ve got the first two verses down, but I am in no rush (there are always dishes to wash.)


Maybe you’d like to read/memorize it, too?

The 23d Psalm George Herbert

The God of love my shepherd is,

And He that does me feed:

While He is mine, and I am His,

What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grass,

Where I both feed and rest;

Then to the streams that gently pass:

In both I have the best.

Or if I stray, He does convert

And bring my mind in frame:

And all this not for my desert*

But for His holy name.

Yea, in death’s shady black abode

Well may I walk, not fear:

For You are with me; and Your rod

To guide, Your staff to bear.

Nay, you do make me sit and dine,

Ev’n in my enemies’ sight:

My head with oil, my cup with wine

Runs over day and night.

Surely Your sweet and wondrous love

Shall measure all my days;

And as it never shall remove,

So neither shall my praise.

* desert. Dessert; what one deserves

Poem Number Three-Barter, Sara Teasdale

The folks at Tweetspeak Poetry, founded by poet and editor L.L. Barkat, are committed to keeping poetry alive in the public square. Tweetspeak began with an impromptu Twitter party where all the participants chimed in and voila, Tweetspeak was born. I wrote about my experience with Tweetspeak and some of their mischief here.

Barkat and her team are committed to folks reading and memorizing poetry and to that end they recently included the poem Barter by Sara Teasdale in their offerings to patrons and readers alike. I’m up for the challenge as well, as I enjoy the content of this poem very much–life and loveliness and all–plus, it rhymes!

Here’s what’s printed out and sitting on my desk…. I’ve got the first stanza down. Baby steps.

Barter  Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

Life has loveliness to sell,
     All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
     Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
     Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
     Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
Spend all you have for loveliness,
     Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
     Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.
2012-05-30 17.57.23
Loveliness, my summer garden
Now it’s your turn. 

Find a simple poem you like, rhyming or otherwise, and add it to your memory banks. Then tell me, what are you reading these days? I’d love to hear in the Comments.


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6 thoughts on “On Reading & Reciting Poetry

  1. These poems, and your relationship with them, are lovely! I especially like the way Herbert adapted the 23rd Psalm into English poetry. And, although I don’t spend much time with poetry, I sort of have a “thing” for sonnets. So “The Singing Bowl” warms my heart.
    Much love, sister!

    1. Jan, I’m happy to be both a cheerleader for poetry and a bit of inspiration. Thanks for dropping by~keep reading those sonnets.

  2. Reading these poems this morning were God’s balm for my soul this morning. Each one treated my unsettled heart. I am going to save this post for reference again. And, I think I’ll start by devoting time to George Herbert’s 23rd Psalm. Thank you for introducing these today, Jody.

    1. Carol, I’m so glad I could be an inspiration. The world needs more beautiful poetry; thanks for reading!

  3. Delightful, Jody! Perhaps you already know, George Herbert’s version of Psalm 23 was put to music centuries ago. Since you like to sing, perhaps a tune for the words would make memorizing it even easier. At the school where I taught for many years, the fifth graders memorized Sara Teasdale’s “Barter,” along with half-a-dozen or so other poems. Nearly every year a group of girls would stop by my fourth grade classroom before or after school, to share their latest recitation with me. Now that you’ve provided the poem here, perhaps I should memorize it too! It’s a worthy choice for the effort, that’s for sure. Current reading material includes Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin–a book about how to study the Bible with both our hearts and our minds. A group of us from church are doing her Bible study on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John–which also includes memorization. Good for our hearts and minds, just like she says!

    1. Nancy, I h a v e read that George’s Psalm was put to music. I should find it. And how serendipitous that you were familiar with the Sara Teasdale poem~it is lovely. I like your reading choices, too! Thanks for commenting–it’s good to “hear” your voice.

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