Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Notes toward an autobiography by others, part 14

I often copy a poem I particularly like, getting it into my fingers and thus, in a small way, into my body. Memorizing is the true way to get a poem into the body, but I'm poor at it.

That's Cynthia MacDonald, from what she shared of her notebooks in The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuuisto, Deborah Tall, David Weiss.

Every time I do up a post about the poems I've copied out in a year I talk about the impetus and the method, so today's post has a redundant feel. I was just checking to see what I said this year about "The Best Poems of 2012," and surprised myself by discovering I'd said nothing! I didn't do a post about 2012? Really? I guess that's my next task. Let me quote what I said last year:

I keep a stack of placemarks ready whenever I’m reading poetry. If a poem strikes me just right, I pop a placemark into the book so I can revisit. If, after several rereadings, I decide it’s a poem I don’t want to leave behind, I hand copy the poem and slip it into a 3-ring binder. I’ve been doing this for about 24 years so I’ve got some fat binders.

Cynthia MacDonald emphasizes the physical nature of the poem - getting it into the fingers, getting it into the body. When she gets it into her mind, lodges the poem there via memorization, that, for her, is physical, too. Mind as part of the body, mind as more "true" body than fingers!

The first of my teachers who put body and poem together for me was Richard Speakes. I'd always thought of poetry as word play - sort of out of body - but Richard talked about getting blood in the poem, talked about the poem's meaty nature, how we feel what the poem is trying out inside us. I think this idea helped my poetry.

At UC Berkeley Robert Hass talked about a poem as breath sculpture, the poet directing the shapes and actions of our vocal cords, lungs, the way one uses air.

Cynthia MacDonald's notion that copying a poem out by hand intensifies the connection with the poem by making the poem not just intellect but motion - dance? - is different but not dissimilar to thoughts I've had about the process of handcopying.

The first poems I copied out I typed. I wanted the poems to look good, as they might appear in a publication. But they didn't look good, and the typing was no pleasure. Rarely was I able to produce a page that escaped splotches of correcting fluid. I switched to handcopying and instantly felt a greater connection to the poems. These weren't just poems that I liked, these were poems I claimed. I was writing them myself! I was physically incorporating them into my body of work. When I reread them it was clear I had written them; after all, I really had. I don't manage flawless copying. Sometimes I crumple up the page and start over. But even when I make a little correction it feels more acceptable than when I have to correct a machine version. It's still in my handwriting, just like an original poem from one of my notebooks.

I've read that one of the excuses plagiarists use is that they didn't realize that what they found in their own handwriting in their own notebook wasn't originally written by them. They will claim that they did a lot of research and occasionally made the mistake of not being clear enough in their process which thoughts were found elsewhere. "I wrote it," they will say. "It was in my handwriting." (Not sure I buy it. But I have a certain sympathy.)

I have made efforts to memorize poems. I still have chunks of Blake's "The Tyger" in my head, and Coleridge's "Xanadu." I can't quite get the whole poem out in the right order these days, but the lines are fun. I don't know that, per MacDonald, memorizing is any truer than any other way of taking a poem in. But I will say that I have read and reread the poems I've copied out and have come very close to memorizing many of them just through familiarity.

Now I better work on writing up "The Best Poems of 2012."


Nathan said...

I have "Jabberwocky" memorized, if that counts for anything.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Are you kidding? It's brillig!