By Heart

Driving west on Route 6, towards the Catskills, a summer weekday morning, and that old Talking Heads song comes on the radio:

I’m writing ’bout the

Book I read

I have to sing about the

Book I read

I’m embarassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart

When I found out you wrote the

Book I read so


Take my shoulders as they touch your arms i’ve

Got little cold chills but I feel alright the

Book I read was in your eyes oh oh

Thinking about when the book you’re reading touches you so much, the words become a part of you. The extreme of that is memorization.

My friend Bethany Pray, the person we’re driving to visit today, commits poems to memory. She wouldn’t say so, but it’s a rather serious pursuit. Not just a limerick for party performances, not a haiku or two. Real poems.  A discipline. She once told me she knew 20 or 30 by heart.

happy bethany

I’ve seen Bethany and Gil have poetry duels around campfires.

Slams? They’re easy. You get up and read or recite your verse, people cheer or boo. With a duel you must remember all the lines of a Shakespeare or a Blake. Not so easy.

Bethany says her favorite to recite is John Berryman’s Sonnet #37

Sigh as it ends… I keep an eye on your

Amour with Scotch,—too cher to consummate;

Faster your disappearing beer than late-

ly mine; your naked passion for the floor;

Your hollow leg; your hanker for one more

Dark as the Sundam Trench; how you dilate

Upon psychotics of this class, collate

Stages, and… how long since you, well, forbore. 

Ah, but the high fire sings on to be fed

Whipping our darkness by the lifting sea

A while, O darling drinking like a clock.

The tide comes on: spare, Time, from what you spread

Her story,—tilting a frozen Daiquiri,

Blonde, barefoot, beautiful,

     flat on the bare floor rivetted to Bach.

I remember Bethany recited it on a long hike we took around the rustic Rockefeller Preserve in Tarrytown, New York, and how I thought it was a poem I would find hard to follow on paper, let alone in air. Berryman was a tough one.


Berryman’s a favorite of Gil’s, too. Gil is at a slight disadvantage in a duel, at least in terms of volume, since he has not applied himself to more than a dozen titles. “There’s a word in Arabic,” he says, “for someone who has memorized the whole of the Koran.” HBO did a show on it, called Koran by Heart. But it’s rare to get a prize for memorizing poetry today unless you’re in 8th grade honors English.


When I was in graduate school the Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky loved the poetry of Thomas Hardy (and you thought Hardy only wrote novels) and made us memorize his poems and come in to class and write them out. Not a good assignment for me, as I barely can remember my own name sometimes.

“Pasternak was reading his poems in an auditorium in Russia and dropped his notes,” says Gil. “As he bent to get them the crowd picked up where he left off and finished the poem for him.”

Bethany calls herself a “poet without a portfolio,” but she is modest. Before earning a  law degree she collected an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA program. She was already working as a paralegal, but “life was boring so I would put a poem in my desk drawer,” occasionally pulling it out. Not to read it – to memorize it.

Her coffee table groans politely under the weight of its poetry. “Kay Ryan is really great,” she says.

coffee table

The duel still in our future, we stop for a sweet moment at Woodstock’s 35-year-old book store The Golden Notebook, to find that they are sold out of The Orphanmaster, with five buyers in the past week alone.

happy Jean

“It’s actually on my bedside table right now,” says Desiree, at her perch behind the counter. “My husband just read your book. He doesn’t like anything, he doesn’t like puppies, and he loved it.”

“You got to feel very famous,” Bethany tells me after we’ve left, happy that she guided us into the shop.

Woodstock is full of bibliophiles and music lovers.

guitar 1

Guitar sculptures stud the sidewalks, each one groovier than the next.

guitar 2

A café has a quiet patio that seems perfect for the poetry throwdown, beneath garlands of honeysuckle and twittering birds, near a lovely puppy with a clubfoot. We get ready to wax poetic. Or rather, they do. I prepare to clap and faint.


Gil begins with Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet to Anne Boleyn, Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind… His brain only smokes a little bit as he gropes in his memory.

Gil searching

Bethany goes with Emily Dickinson: On a Columnar self–. “It’s hard to understand her language,” says Bethany. “It’s a kind of mental straitjacket on her passions.”

What do both the duellists have in their quiver? What passions do they share?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you…

That’s the opening of Philip Larkin’s dark, hilarious This Be the Verse, one that Bethany and Gil could reel off together, as if in a rock band or at an Irish pub. Gil tells Bethany about the time he recited it in a talent contest at a Universalist family retreat in woodsy Minnesota and got sent away with his knuckles rapped. It’s hardly family friendly, but so brilliant, and Larkin was Poet Laureate of Britain, after all..

Gil’s turn. Blake’s London. I wander through each charter’d street…

Bethany: Ode to Autumn by John Keats.

Beth reciting

She delivers the three long stanzas and we are properly floored.

Another poem for the two of them together –another Berryman, one of the Dreamsongs. Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

Coffee all around.

Bethany, another Dickinson. Gil, some Macbeth. Bethany, Spring by Larkin. And she finishes with Berryman’s wonderful I keep an eye on your/Amour.

“His wife learned he was having an affair by reading those poems,” says Gil. I think Gil was inspired to hit the books for his next contest with Bethany, whenever that might occur.

“People survived in the Gulag archipelago by reciting long stretches of poetry,” says Bethany. She knows a poem by Pushkin. She recited it to someone she met, a Russian mail-order bride, who burst into tears, she was so homesick.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Writers, Writing

4 responses to “By Heart

  1. Well, more than a dozen, I’ll be darned.

  2. Desiree, please tell your husband his appreciation of The Orphanmaster made me happy.
    My next novel will be out March 2013 from Viking. It’s called Savage Girl and it takes place in 1875 NYC. I did a little write up about it on my blog:
    I will definitely come to the store for an event — soon!

  3. When I told my husband you were in the store, he squealed with delight and clapped his hands like a small child. Did you ask her about the Hurley Indians? I had a question about …blah blah blah and wanted to know how she blah blah blah and if she blah blah yada yada yada. What is her next novel? When will it be out? Is she working on it now? Will she come to the store and do an event? Will she be part of next year’s Woodstock Writers Festival? He has become quite the fan. Thank you.

  4. Gil Reavill

    A poetry duel is well known as the fastest way to clear a room at a party.

    What I have in my quiver (altho some of the arrows turn out to be broken when I try to haul them out):

    Ah, Sunflower, Blake
    London, Blake
    Whoso List to Hunt, Thomas Wyatt
    Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, Macbeth, Shakespeare
    When to the sessions of sweet silent thought (Sonnet 30), Shakespeare
    The Second Coming, Yeats
    Lapis Lazuli, Yeats (last two stanzas)
    Life, friends, is boring (Dream song 14) John Berryman
    This Be the Verse, Phillip Larkin
    Separation, W.S. Merwin
    For a Coming Extinction, W.S. Merwin
    I Know a Man, Robert Creeley
    How We Heard the Name, Alan Dugan
    Life of Crime, William Matthews
    Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm, James Wright
    Canterbury Tales, Chaucer (opening lines)

    I know there’s more lying around in there. You know you’re in trouble when you can’t remember what you’re supposed to have memorized.

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