Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, March 9, 2014
It’s early March, and the sun is extremely busy right now melting gazillions of snowflakes into water. I am looking for a poem about sun, snowmelt, staying centered, finding a job, selling my house, getting married and listening to the birds — specifically chickadees, as they trill their message to the atmosphere at large. You will understand why in a moment.
There must be just such a poem out there, if we are to believe that nothing is new under the hardworking sun and that everything worth saying — and all the mediocre stuff, as well — has pretty much been said before. We theorize and calculate that a monkey given an infinite amount of time (Infinite Monkey Theorem) would eventually compose just such a verse, and we must assume that man/woman would be at least a little bit faster (Twiddling Opposable Thumbs Theorem?).
I love chickadees. I love how fat their bellies are and I love their grey-black-white approach to fashion. I love their enthusiasm for sunflower seeds, their wind-up hopping, and the almost cricket-like rasp of their dry little throats. The sweet everydayness of this bird delights me.
When I find the poem of my questing, in addition by being fortified by it, I am pledging to begin a new regimen of memorization. Memorizing used to be a part of life back in ancient times and right up until recently (the ‘60s) when rote learning lost favor. At this point, we were taught instead that simply learning to find information was more appropriate, efficient and modern than committing anything to memory. Unless you were involved in theater or church or choir or being a poet, memorizing eventually went the way of the eight-track tape. Never to return.
And what a shame. Because we’re missing out on some good, solid stuff.
A few years back, on a quiet night, Dick Bass, the (now) 85-year-old legendary mountain climber and founder of Snowbird, wanders into my workplace. Once we’ve gotten the six degrees of separation out of the way, we begin conversing in earnest about life’s ups and downs and mountains and metaphors of mountains; and 20 minutes later he has already successfully slipped four or five poems, fully recited, into our conversation like sidebars. It’s impressive, and I say so.
“Well, you see,” he says to me, “For every experience, I have a poem. For every challenge or situation — sometimes good ones — I have something memorized. Something great. I have hundreds of them.” It’s obvious this makes him happy, and for a moment, I am stung with envy. He owns these poems — as much as he owns a suitcase or a house or a ski resort or a gold watch. In fact, he owns them more because no one can steal a memorized poem from you. And in bad times, will their value decrease? Will they tarnish or rot or even fade?
He continues on with his somewhat elevated view of humankind, nature, optimism and how to conquer the world both within and without. I listen as he recites a few more — with a smattering of pride, to be sure — ending each poem with “Do you know that one?”
Won over by his facility, his desire to memorize and the sheer practicality of poetry for him, I realize that this isn’t just some party trick but a survival skill — something tucked into a tin box along with matches and iodine tablets. Poetry is not the piece of chocolate in this particular emergency kit, it’s the Leatherman tool!
In comparison, my resources are pathetic. The only poem I have at my disposal is one I learned in French school at the age of 6, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” by Jean de la Fontaine, which is a moral tale about the industrious ant getting ready for winter while the devil-may-care grasshopper sings and sings and sings. Not exactly all purpose. Certainly, a bit too alarmist. I am thinking now that I might find solace, strength and beauty in great poetry committed to memory and to heart. So I am searching for a starter poem, one that speaks to my current circumstances.
This might be the one time in my life I will have to disagree with Albert Einstein who said, “Never memorize something you can look up.” These days, anybody can look anything up. But how many people can retrieve a poem when they need one, take a smooth rock from their pocket and feel its warm density in their palm?