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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

When Amanda Gorman performed The Hill We Climb at the U.S. inauguration, she illustrated the power of poetry. With repetition and familiar images, she invoked imagination: “For there is always light, /if only we’re brave enough to see it / if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

I discovered the power of poetry when I was alone, ill and at a loss for what to do.

My balance, sight and hearing were distorted, a condition the doctor had said might only be temporary. In the meantime, I couldn’t read or listen to music. I couldn’t watch television or chat on the telephone. After several frustrating hours, I thought about my mother comforting me as a child with the poems she had memorized. Perhaps I could do that, too!

With my blurry vision, I located a book of poetry and found I could read two lines at a time. Then I closed my eyes and repeated the words. Slowly, I crowded anxiety out. I entertained thoughts of a “yellow wood” and the road not taken (Robert Frost). I filled my thoughts with daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze” (William Wordsworth). I savoured the descriptions and the ideas.

Over the next three days, I memorized several poems. Years later, those poems still come back unexpectedly to enrich my days. I turn to poetry to describe the beauty of nature. I think about poems to ease my panicky thoughts in a long queue, for example, while others scroll through their cellphones. From time to time, I refresh or add to my repertoire.

When I awake in the middle of the night, I avoid my “to do” lists and turn to poems. My favourite nocturnal poem is Rivers of Canada by Bliss Carman. It starts with the rivers that run to Hudson’s Bay, continues to the north and west and finishes in the east. I rarely succeed in being awake to finish the Atlantic part of this 34-line poem. Even remembering a few lines and the rhythm (like waves lapping on the shore) can be comforting.

Poetry has many forms. It shows up in all types of music. Memorizing poetry (with or without music) used to be a common trait. Ontario school children were once required to memorize 200 lines of poetry every year. Two hundred is not a typo. They selected poems such as The Song My Paddle Sings by E. Pauline Johnson and The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service. Recitations took place on Friday afternoons and teachers like my mother encouraged all pupils to participate.

It was an era when most people lived in the countryside and many children only completed eight years of school before devoting their lives to the family farm. Books were scarce, even in schools. Poetry was part of everyday life.

Later, when my mother’s days were occupied with small children and household tasks, she filled her idle thoughts with poetry. Even now, I recall being lulled to sleep by her voice as she recited a poem. Often, she was rehearsing for a coming community social. I memorized parts of the poems with her. One was Patience by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, an Anglican priest and army chaplain during the First World War: “Sometimes I wish that I might do just one grand deed and die …” Another had 96 lines detailing all the things a housewife did. The audience marvelled at her ability to remember long poems, assuming she had a special talent. They had no idea how much she practised.

Once, a 90-year-old surprised me by reciting lines from a poem spontaneously during our conversation. She didn’t remember the whole poem and she had forgotten the poet’s name, but she knew she had learned it in elementary school. I looked it up and found the lines had been written by Sir Walter Scott: “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land! …” She told me she had gained new meaning from the poem through the years.

I’m uncertain why memorization was discontinued in most schools. Nowadays, the internet makes it easy to look up a poem if key words are remembered. Yet it’s not the same as holding a poem in memory.

My mother, almost 100 and nearly blind, illustrated this to me. I was about to enter her room in the nursing home one day when I heard two voices speaking in unison. I paused, recognizing the poem by William Wilfred Campbell: “Along the line of smoky hills, The crimson forest stands. …” I waited for the ending before interrupting.

Mother introduced me to the older gentleman by her bedside. He had been her pupil when she taught in a one-room school 70 years before. Indian Summer was a poem the whole school had memorized. It remained a shared bond. Mother couldn’t read or watch television, and she rarely left her bed, but through poetry she could envision scenes she would never see again.

She shared a room with Helen, who rarely spoke. My talkative mother filled the silence, sometimes with verses she had memorized years earlier. When Helen’s 30-year-old grandson visited, he was astonished to realize memorized poetry was always available to her. He worked in technology and could access anything through the internet. Yet he decided to memorize poetry.

Memorized lines of poetry can be retrieved anywhere and anytime, without a charged battery, even in the middle of a dark, sleepless night.

In a convocation address years ago, Robertson Davies’s only piece of advice to graduates was, “Get yourself a good anthology of poetry.” Read poems daily. Read and reread until they are within you.

When I first read his advice in his book of essays, The Merry Heart, I was skeptical. Now I understand. As he said, poetry is “part of the sustenance we take on board for the long voyage of life.” The love of poetry shared by my mother has become an enduring gift helping me through many frustrating hours. It’s a gift anyone can give oneself.

Millie Morton lives in Kingston.

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