Today I'd like to tell you a story. This happened many years ago, at a workshop led by the poet Roland Flint. Roland was one of those people who carried an entire library inside of him; he could (and did) recite poems at the drop of a hat. It was a wonderful thing. He would have been a terrific companion if you were stranded on a desert island (although I don't know how helpful he would have been at things like fishing and building rafts).
At this workshop, Roland made an interesting distinction - that there is a difference between poems that you memorize and poems that you get by heart. He likened memorizing poems to cramming for a test - you can jam the words into your head for a specific purpose, but they aren't likely to stay there very long unless you feel some connection to them. Poems you get by heart, in contrast, go in (sometimes in one whole gulp) and stay there. They become a resource, a nourishing place to return to over and over again. Everyone of us has poems like this: poems that, for whatever reason, we keep and hold close and use to fill us up when we feel empty. (On the other side of the coin, I specifically remember reading Billy Budd the night before a test in 11th grade. I know I read it; I passed the test; but to this day, the only part of the book that sticks with me is the end when they hang him.)
Roland then said he was going to teach us a poem. But we weren't going to read it - he was going to take us through it, word by word, line by line, until we had the thing entire. Some of us, he said, would just have it memorized, and eventually it would go away. But others, he hoped, would get it by heart -the way he had it. He started by giving us the title, then the first two words of the first line, then asked, "What do you think comes next?" This was a roomful of poets, remember, so there were lots of suggestions. Then he gave us the next few words, and so on, until we came to the end of the line, when he had us say the line aloud several times. Then, we moved on to the next line. And so on, until we got to the end of the poem, when he had the entire room (there were about a hundred of us - it was a big workshop) say the poem together twice.
Why we love a particular poem is completely personal and often deeply private. The poem Roland taught me was indeed one I got "by heart;" it touched and continues to touch something within me, and I have often gone back to it when I need filling up. Interestingly, it was years before I saw the poem on paper. Here it is:
"The Two-Headed Calf"
by Laura Gilpin
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass.
And as he stares into the sky, he sees
twice as many stars as usual.
from The Weight of a Soul, 2008
Laura Gilpin (1950-2007) achieved recognition early for her poetry. In 1976, William Stafford chose her first book, The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe (where this poem first appeared), for the Walt Whitman Prize. She taught writing for a few years, then shifted gears into nursing, where she became involved with Planetree, an organization dedicated to compassionate, patient-centered medical care. She worked there for the rest of her life, but never stopped writing poetry. Gilpin died of brain cancer in 2007; she was, however, able to collect her poems into a final book, The Weight of a Soul, which also includes some of the poems from her first collection. All of the profits from The Weight of a Soul go to Planetree.
Here is Garrison Keillor reading "The Two-Headed Calf" on The Writer's Almanac. The poem starts at 4:00 minutes.