The Art of Carrying Verse

When I first moved to San Francisco in January of 2010, I took nothing with me but a backpack and a satchel. I had given away my only computer, one of those old white-cased Macs. I wanted to be unburdened. I stayed at a youth shelter for a time where my only music came from my 2004 iPod, which was stolen. I didn’t miss it for long, because I carried with me a book of poems, songs and prayers that I hand-scribbled in black ink on soft, textured pages. At that time I was nineteen, nearly twenty years old and fighting one of the worst multi-year episodes of my lifelong depression. So I carried with me through that city of sea-fog and sunlit towers out of my league the words of poems to remember, and hymns and folk songs to sing. I memorized the verses I found and needed to carry, singing them to myself on the Muni, on BART, climbing those steep streets of fool’s gold to old churches past homeless encampments. Many a passersby seems to enjoy my spontaneous singing, it being so out of the usual in a modern American city. I sang to Golden Gate Park when, one day, I found a baby American Robin fallen out of its nest. I stayed a long time to see where it hopped to, trying to direct the distressed avian infant with my own winged motions to a place of safe haven. I hoped I’d find the same place for myself. To sing words by heart means you can call on their power whenever you need them, and they will assist you.

The old-school method of rote memorization of verse may, after all, not be so harsh if the pupil can but choose the words that call out to them. How many people today care to have tucked in their sternum the rhyming words of remembering love, the song your grandma sang when you were a child, a poem that grabs and squeezes your frozen heart ’til it warms and pulses again. When my grandparents were children in the 1930s, everyone knew by heart some songs and poems, and it was not unusual for young adults well into the 1950s to strike up a song together in chorus at a party, even unaccompanied by instrument, for the natural joy of it. I call this the lost art of carrying verse. Common people used to know poems and songs, the way people now know their favorite internet music channels. It is not to say that our excellent access to recorded music is a bad thing, but only that I wish we wouldn’t let it replace our own spontaneity at carrying and reciting verse from within us.

I first heard Anne Bradstreet’s famous poem on marital love, “To My Dear and Loving Husband” performed on audio recording by Robert Pinsky on his album of recorded poetry, Essential Pleasures. I had long been a lover of spoken poetry by then. I had never yet had an intimate partner at that time, and the poem spoke of a love and trust between spouses I hadn’t witnessed in my own never-even-married parents. Written sometime between 1641 and 1643, the poem, spoken passionately in the woman’s voice, moreover gives the lie to the stereotype of downcast and unfulfilled early European American woman. Being written by a woman, much less in the 17th century, it is an indispensable perspective in love poetry which too often makes the woman the thing to be looked upon, instead of the active agent who does the loving and desiring upon a man who receives her affections. Love poetry written by women does the dual medicine of amplifying women’s voices and experiences while allowing men to be loved themselves, for once. Finally, menfolk, take a break from always being the active agents. Lay back and let your women do some active loving!

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me ye women if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,

That when we live no more we may live ever.

Bradsteet’s poem echoes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”) in tone, though it be twelve lines instead of fourteen. I already knew Sonnet 18 by heart, and I scooped up Bradstreet’s love sonnet like silver, memorizing it into my hopeful San Francisco hymnal. The author’s voice of joy rising to crescendo conveys this earthly love up to her prayers, putting the woman’s love that happens on earth squarely in the realm of that which is respected as sacred. Her comparison of this love’s greatness to the inconsequentiality of the world’s riches might make us mistake that she disdained this world. But she rather draws all earthly things into it; in the large way of the poet. Her love is by her husband reciprocated.

When I read it, I held this poem in my hands, there in those San Francisco streets, and then I held it in my memory, as a potion to find such love as this. Lonely, short-haired, I looked for this largeness of love and verse yet incorporeal to me in rose gardens owned by institutions, but which gave their floral splendor to me indiscriminately. I looked for this love already coming to live in my own life, recovering from my depression.

Bradstreet’s poem is anaphoric in nature. It is in the rare second person, addressing her Beloved with all the boldness and tenderness of a young lover even in her middle-aged marriage. Bradstreet’s poem connects all us women through time, ancestral wisdom, like the wisdom of carrying such words within us. It tells me, with much relief, that in every age before me there has been true marital love, not only in our ostensibly more enlightened time, but inherent to all eras of human life. Now I have found my beloved. My partner, T, is much worthy of this poem. If I hadn’t remembered it and carried it, would I have had such perspective in earlier years that finding him would be possible? Would I have had Bradsteet’s ancestral help in my recovery from depression? I take inspiration and reassurance of this deeply human experience written down by a woman cultural ancestor so many generations before me.

I no longer live in San Francisco. I left that city June of 2012, tired of the impossible cost of living and established societies difficult to break into and find real community. I went to attend an outdoor school in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, the greater region which I have now settled in, with T, my object of poetic affections. I still battle depression– it’s a condition I will always have, but I now know how to manage it a little better. I still have my book of verse, and I find new words to imprint in my memory, bright words of power to carry.