THE POWER OF POETRY
— A.M. O’Malley
I first found poetry when I was nine years old in a beat up paperback copy of Alfred Tennyson’s collected poems that my father had. One Saturday, when no one was around, I stole the book away to my corner of the back yard—a place where I spent many hours as a kid in the solitude that only-children know well. I had recognized the book as fodder for my games of pretend and as I read through the book I became excited by the stories and lofty language; The Lady of Shalott was a particularly favorite source for elaborate games of imagination. However, it wasn’t until I came upon the poem; The Poet’s Song did the power of poetry really take hold of me. I imagined the speaker in the poem, the Poet, as a sort of cross between Snow White and a wizard—incredibly powerful and able to speak to nature. I wanted to have the power the Poet held.
I decided to memorize the poem—I still don’t know where I got the idea—and I spent days reading and rereading it in the back yard. When I try to recall the poem now, I can feel the feel of the cut grass against my legs and almost 30 years later, I can still remember a few lines of the poem:
The rain had fallen, the Poet arose,
He pass’d by the town and out of the street,
A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,
And waves of shadow went over the wheat,
And he sat him down in a lonely place,
And chanted a melody loud and sweet,
That made the wild-swan pause in her cloud,
And the lark drop down at his feet.
For some reason, I never told anyone I had memorized the poem, I never recited it at the dinner table or at school, I just kept the poem with me. I said it to myself at night before falling asleep and eventually stopped thinking about it altogether. But from that moment I felt comfortable with poetry—it became a friend.W
This act of taking a poem in to my body—knowing it by heart—brings me to what poetry means to me. Poems are what I have when nothing else will suffice. Poems are what I went to when my father committed suicide, poems were integral to the process of falling in love with and eventually marrying my husband. Poems have helped me make friends. Poems have seduced me, comforted me and brought me to tears.
In the last few years, I’ve picked up the habit of memorizing poems again. I started with memorizing rhyming poems by Emily Dickinson and Theodore Roethke. I went for long walks muttering stanzas to myself. I got good at assigning corners and trees in my neighborhood to lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins and W.H. Auden. As my memorization chops improved; I moved on to poems that were more difficult to commit to memory. I memorized poems by Mary Ruefle, Charles Wright, James Tate, Frank O’Hara and others. Now, I have hours of poems memorized. I can walk for miles with a long string of poems and I am comforted by the fact that if I were ever trapped in a well I would have the poems to keep me company until rescued.
That first effort to memorize Tennyson’s poem The Poet’s Song, when I was nine years old, was a step toward a life of loving poems, it was a guarantee against loneliness or at least any belief that what I am feeling in this life is unique.
A.M. O’Malley is a writer and educator who has recently been published in The Newer York, Unshod Quills, Nailed Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Jerkpoet, Poor Claudia, The Burnside Review and The Portland Review. Ms. O’Malley’s first full length book of hybrid poem-memoir Blasphemy is Easy in Love will be published on University of Hell Press in 2015. She is a Literary Arts Writers in the Schools teaching artist, a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant recipient and winner of the 2014 Skidmore Prize. In 2012, Ms. O’Malley started a writing and publishing program at the Columbia River Correctional Institution and goes there every Tuesday night to teach writing to incarcerated men. She teaches writing, collage art and self-publishing at Portland Community College and runs a monthly poem recitation event called Other People’s Poems at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon where she is the Program Director at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. Follow her on Instagram at amohmalley, twitter @amomalleytweets and on Tumblr at annmarieomalley.tumblr.com