Before my grandmother married, she worked as a typist in Manhattan, and while she typed, she memorized poems. I know almost nothing else about my grandmother, except that she had a flair for fashion and wore elegant hats. She died while I was a girl, and of the stories that my mother told me about her mother, only the poems and hats remain.
I like to think about my grandmother as a young lady, taking the bus from New Jersey, walking to her building, riding the elevator, removing her typewriter’s cover. She’d arrange the day’s material before her, but she didn’t need to think to type, and besides, the documents were dull. So she opened the slim volume of poetry she kept in her handbag and read a poem, then slid it under the typewriter’s caldera and began memorizing as her fingers flew over the keys, occasionally, I imagine, sliding the book out to check a line when she got stuck.
My grandmother wasn’t attempting to earn a high degree or launch a literary career. Why, then, did she memorize poems? One might as well ask, “Why add beauty to your life?” Think of the dry statistical reports she was typing. Think of superimposing on them the melody of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the poet addresses the “Bold Lover” captured forever on the urn at the moment his lips almost touch the maiden’s: “Never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve: / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
All day long, we absorb language from the world around us. Through the hard work of slowing down enough to read and absorb poetry, we can counterbalance the noise we have no choice but to receive. We each have a language store, and when we memorize poetry, we’re expanding it, building new shelves and stocking them with quality merchandise. When we don’t, our shallow shelves are still being stocked, but with the shoddy stuff of popular culture. Plop, plop. Fizz. Fizz.
I don’t know exactly which poems my grandmother memorized in Manhattan, but I’d be willing to bet that I’ve memorized a few of the same, here where I live in Mississippi. And while I can’t ask her what the joys of memorizing poetry were for her, I like to think I’ve experienced the same joys, and because of this I feel I’ve come to know her. Despite the secretarial pool’s clatter of typewriters and tobacco smoke rising toward the ceiling, she took part in the creation of something beautiful. She carried this beauty with her. Years and miles and years away, I picture her walking from the office after a long day, the volume of poetry tucked in her handbag. Are her fingers tired from typing? Perhaps, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she swings her handbag like a beacon in the night.