Prophylactic Poetry

This morning I straightened the shoes in the front hall and said to the dog, the most attentive member of the family, “I’d do it all again–/marry the man, carry the sons. I’d eat/ the whole McIntosh, seeds and all.”* She sighed and sank to the f loor, waiting for the rest of the poem or perhaps completing it herself in dog-speak. Surely she could. She’s heard it and half a dozen others often enough as I struggled to memorize them.

A month ago, I couldn’t recite any poetry. I didn’t even read poetry, and I didn’t particularly want to. Then I got my first smartphone.

I’ve held out on buying one for a long time, and even in the store I was ambivalent. I’m in a service industry, and I know a smartphone will help me provide better service to clients. But I don’t like carrying the whole world and an entertainment center around with me. It’s too much connection, too many choices (Pandora, Netf lix, or Facebook while waiting to pick up carpool?), too much doing, all on a tiny screen, and not enough ref lecting. I’m not a Luddite; I just think enough is enough.

In his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers talks about the importance of the gap between times of technology use. He uses the example of calling his mother from his cell phone to tell her he’ll be late. After he hangs up, he continues to think of his mother, visualizing some happy times they’ve shared. This simple call reminds him of their deep connection—but only because of the gap after the call. If he’d immediately made another call, it wouldn’t have held meaning beyond conveying information.

“The gap is the essential link between the utilitarian side of the digital experience and the ‘vital significance’ side. And it’s a link that’s completely overlooked in current thinking about technology, with its unexamined faith in nonstop connectedness,” he writes. “To share time and space with others in the fullest sense, you have to disconnect from the global crowd. You have to create one of those gaps where thoughts, feelings, and relationships take root.”

That idea of creating space away from technology isn’t new to me. It’s one of the reasons I have a little garden and why I don’t much mind washing dishes by hand. The phone, though, raised the stakes.

So I was thinking about those gaps as I drove to book club. For the first time, our book club had chosen to read and discuss two books of poetry, one by Jack Ridl and the other by Debra Wierenga, both of whom were going to be there.

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Poetry intimidates me. I don’t get it. And it’s embarrassing to be a writer who doesn’t get words in a creative form. But that night at book club the poets said poetry is about being, not about meaning. It’s meant to be experienced, they said, like music, because a good deal of poetry’s power comes from the rhythm and rhyme of the words. Even though I don’t know much about music, I enjoy it, and on the drive home, I allowed for the possibility that poetry is something I might like, after all.

In my favorite movie of all time, Shakespeare in Love, Viola De Lesseps puts the importance of poetry right up there with adventure and love. She’s adamant when she says, “I will have poetry in my life,” and she risks plenty to get it. To her, poetry is integral to a life fully lived.

She gets poetry and a life fully lived; I get technology and, if I don’t draw some boundaries, a life barely lived. There are fewer and fewer gaps because the more you can do with technology, the more you think of to do with it. It’s like not needing anything until you go shopping and suddenly you realize how much you need. Except that you really don’t. And you buy things and then you have to figure out how to fit them into your life.

So I’ve taken up prophylactic poetry. I’m memorizing poems to keep technology from propagating and to protect the gaps. No one is more surprised by this than I am. If for book club we’d read a book on kickboxing, I’d probably be doing that instead. But we read poetry.

I haven’t been at all methodical in choosing the poems. I started with Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” because it was short and I’d learned it in sixth grade. Thanks to the funeral scene in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” was next, then a few others.

So far, the effort is paying off. I’ve found it impossible to memorize a poem without ref lecting on the poet’s word choices and placement. Sometimes, ref lection even gives way to meaning. I memorized “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost, in early May—just the right time to fully appreciate “Nature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold” (and capture it with my smartphone’s camera).

It has also shortened my 3:00 a.m. spells of insomnia. Like a toy can distract an anxious child, poetry distracts my mind from the usual worries just enough—ooh! Look how pretty!—to let me sink back into sleep. I think my concentration is improving, too. It had been a very long time since I’d had to memorize anything, even a phone number. With a smartphone, there’s even less reason to; everything is at your fingertips.

It’s reassuring to see that I still can memorize something. I’ve always thought that, whatever losses and indignities old age might bring, my quality of life would be good enough as long as I could read or listen to books. I assumed I’d always be able to—until a friend mentioned that her mother, an avid reader, can no longer follow a plot because of her Alzheimer’s disease. By the time she reads a new page, she’s forgotten what happened on the previous one.

And so I memorize these words that poets have so carefully strung together and hope that poetry will be prophylactic in this final sense, protecting the words and their order, so even if their meaning is lost, I’ll still be able to experience them. For a writer, the only thing worse than not understanding words is not having any words at all.

*From “Self Portrait as Eve,” by Debra Wierenga in her chapbook Marriage and Other Infidelities.

Christine MacLean writes essays, books, and grocery lists from her home in Holland, Michigan. This essay first appeared at New Communitas (www.newcommunitas.com), a blog written by four women seeking to engage fully in the second half of life.