It was one of those gray days, made grayer by the tinted windows of Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The world's busiest airport was living up to its name.
People swirled in a hectic river past me as I slouched in my seat, awaiting my connecting flight home to Cleveland. A man about 30 years old sat down across the way, lurking furtively toward me.
"Excuse me," he said, "did you teach English at John Carroll?"
"Still do. Weren't you one of my students?"
He looked vaguely familiar, though thicker in his body than the lanky, quiet boy 10 years before who had sat toward the back of class in Major American Writers.
He was an actuary now, working with statistics and predicting the future, but all he wanted to do was talk about the past.
"I still remember the poem," he said and leaned in.
In the middle of the hurtle of human beings heading to their gates, heading home, he spoke:
"Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village though;/He will not see me stopping here/To watch his woods fill up with snow."
I still require students to memorize a poem, which they recite or write down in class, before they write a paper about it. It is a weird, annoying, old-fashioned assignment that is secretly ancient, crazy and beautiful: to hold and share words by heart. To use your mouth, your whole body, as an instrument for the unfettered music of words.
It's a nearly forgotten art, having things by heart. Once a staple of education, memorization now feels something like an embarrassing cramming exercise for pre-med students learning anatomy or history students repeating dates of wars that they'll quickly offload once they've finished the exam. Memory itself is now so supplemented by digitization, it seems nearly impossible to have actual memories that aren't computer-generated.
But as long as our species has been speaking, we've held some language by heart. A prayer that consoles: Make me a instrument of your peace. A commercial jingle. A dirty joke. Something about a girl from Nantucket. The Pledge of Allegiance. Something a parent or a friend or a teacher said that we've never forgotten, that bore a hole into us, hurting or healing. A whole song that wells up when its melody opens and lights something inside us. All of us carrying these words that carry us. Actors, singers, politicians, rappers, motivational speakers, the religious — some of us make a living reciting, the medium and message all mixed into one.
During Joseph Stalin's rule, when the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was hauled off to die in a Siberian gulag because he'd written an unflattering poem about the leader, Nadezhda Mandelstam secured her husband's memory — his patrimony of poetry — by memorizing, one by one, hundreds of his poems. Her mind was a cathedral she'd made of thousands and thousands of words.
When the mayor of Belfast, whom we were visiting as part of a peace-building immersion, learned I was a poet, he asked if I could recite one of my poems for him. Because, it meant, what sort of poet did not carry words with him, closer than his clothes? I offered him a short poem, hoping it was adequate to the occasion. I wondered whether it would have been better to pull out some lines from Seamus Heaney:
"History says, don't hope/On this side of the grave./But then, once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme."
One fall, I went on a two-week tour with the Russian poet Sergey Gandlevsky, who would recite all of his poems by heart. I would doggedly read the translations, and he would stand, look off into the distance, and in his bass of a voice, call forth these whole word-worlds that he'd made. By heart.
To this day, his two-hour readings are hypnotic events, performances of a life's work. Each time I am with him, it reminds me that poetry is much more than a stretch of verse, words knocked together in some pleasing way. It's an alternate way of being. It hearkens back to the days when masses of people all over the world carried words with them that reminded them of where they came from, where they were and where they were going. Stitched deep in us, there is this need to remember, to pass on.
Even today, aboriginal people of Australia can navigate the land through songlines, also called "dreamtracks." The songs themselves are a kind of poetic global positioning system. They anchor the singers in the landscape and help them figure out where they need to go.
Sometimes I need a poem or a prayer — a mouthful of words, a mantra — just to fall asleep, when my heart or head suddenly races in the stillness of late night.
Back in the airport, surrounded by the seethe of people carrying their own language, when this former student stumbled on a line, I picked it up and we finished the poem together:
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep."