nectarhoff: A Thought on Memorizing Poetry

A Thought on Memorizing Poetry

To a Poor Old Woman
by William Carlos Wlliams

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag 
of them in her hand 

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by 
the way she gives herself 
to the one half 
sucked out in her hand 

a solace of ripe plums 
seeming to fill the air 
They taste good to her

When we read poetry we tend to go down the page as if it were prose, paying little attention to the line breaks and structure of the piece. But the key difference between prose and poetry is that poetry is characterized (generally speaking) by the distinct structure given to it by the poet. And, since the natural method of memorizing a poem is to learn it line by line, the reader is forced to slow down and examine this structure more closely, even if he is not consciously doing so.

When I first attempted to memorize the poem, I couldn't tell how to recite it. Should I begin by saying "To a Poor Old Woman, by William Carlos Williams: munching a plum on..."? This sounds awkward, but then I noticed that there are four stanzas, and the first is the only one with three lines, which suggests that the title is indeed meant to stand as the first line of the poem, as well as the title. So now when I read the poem I say, "To a Poor Old Woman, by William Carlos Williams: To a poor old woman, munching a plum on..." This seems like a trivial observation, and perhaps it is in the scheme of things, but wait, no, it's not trivial. Every little thing is important in poetry.

The second thing I noticed was the significance of the last line of the second stanza--"good to her". This line is so bare, so simple, but powerful enough that it functions as the turn for the poem. And it is the structure of the stanza that makes this happen. The first line contains the complete sentence "They taste good to her", the second only "they taste good", the third "to her. They taste", and finally in the fourth, "good to her". Just reading the lines makes me feel like I am physically revolving, and the period in the second line, the only period in the poem, functions symbolically as the "snap" where the turn is introduced. Williams starts out feeling pity for "a poor old woman" sitting alone and eating a plum, only to realize that the plums are "good to her" and by the final stanza, the first line of which is only one word, he understands that the plums give her "comfort".

- 8/4/14


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