Tuesday, January 18, 2005


I only know one poem by heart anymore, by Ogden Nash:

There's something about a martini
A tingle remarkably pleasant
A yellow, a mellow martini
I wish that I had one at present
Yes there's something about a martini
Ere the dining and dancing begin
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermonth
I think that perhaps it's the gin

It's somewhat embarassing, I suppose, that the only poem I know by heart is about what is probably the greatest threat to my own health (if "Life is a Highway," as my clock radio insisted one morning this weekend, waking me up to an unnatural wooziness, I should probably be pulled over).

I never knew that much poetry by heart, and don't recall ever spending much time trying to memorize poems, but I have a good memory and things tend to stick with me, for a time at least. When poetry was a regular part of daily life, I could recall large chunks of verse with the same ease that I now pull the measurements of favorite recipes or the family schedule of lessons, appointments and juggled nonstandard work hours or the location of a stored-away toy from my memory files.

Adolescence is like the big bang; the very boundaries of your universe suddenly begin expanding away from you so fast in every direction. Discovering sex, literature, driving, rock and roll, love, psychoactive substances, and the other side of midnight all at once is thrilling and intoxicating and extremely disorienting. For me, poetry was part of making sense of all this on a day-to-day basis, and I remember lines and fragments and whole poems of Ginsberg and cummings and Whitman just lodging themselves in my consciousness willy-nilly, like meteorites perhaps.

There is one other poem that I can remember a few lines of, but it is in Russian. It is a short poem by Pushkin, and I was told in my Russian classes that this is the poem that every Russian schoolchild learns by heart.

I studied Russian for the first two years of my higher education. It seemed a language full of both romance and the sweep of history. The coup which ended the Gorbachev era and cleared the way for Boris Yeltin happened the weekend before I left for college, and for a left-leaning 18-year-old it seemed like the Soviet Union might be poised on the cusp of a grand new marriage of freedom and socialism. But of course, things fall apart.

The first line of the Pushkin poem is "Ya vas lyubil, lyubov yeshcho bitz mozhe" mdash; "I once loved you," the poem begins unambiguously, but then continues with a phrase which (if I remember my Russian properly), could either mean "perhaps I still love you" or "perhaps love still exists."

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