In Which Ella Memorizes Poetry for Sport

“Pippa! Pippa! Pippa! Want to hear me recite ‘Litany’ by Billy Collins?” was the first thing I said when Pippa arrived home from boarding school for her spring break.

And because we were still in that delightful 24-hour period before we start arguing, she agreed. So I recited and she laughed in the appropriate places and my mother noted that I’ve been reciting it for anyone who is in the general vicinity for days now.

I should probably tone down my delight over having memorized another piece, but it’s one of my favorite poems, and I tend to heavily proselytize anything I develop an extreme fondness for, no matter the other person’s level of interest. (This is why at my sixteenth birthday party, I forced all of my friends to watch Miracle, a movie about the 1980s Olympic Hockey Team and paused it every few minutes to explain what was happening. Surprisingly, no one was as quite as enthusiastic about the film as I was.)

Here’s the poem:

Litany by Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.

I love to memorize. I love the entertainment and comfort of being able to repeat things to myself when I’m bored. My repertoire of facts, geography, sections of books, monologues, and poems means that I never run out of something to do even while stuck in long lines or waiting rooms. Mentally labeling states’ capitals is a lot more fun than Women’s Health Magazine or pamphlets on diabetes.

Plus, Pippa and I often turn it into a competition. We love to recite over each other, trying to outdo the other in volume, length of the piece, and difficulty. Usually, she wins with her rendition of the first fifty lines of the Prologue of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which she does–I kid you not–in Middle English. Long Shakespeare monologues don’t quite measure up.

I only thought of this today because I was rereading The Fault in Our Stars this past weekend, and in it the main character, Hazel, recites quite a bit of poetry. Unfortunately, my collection of poems is rather small, so I decided that it needed some improving. People much prefer listening to a poem during a long car ride than listening to me try to beat my time reciting the U.S. presidents or list the state capitals in alphabetical order.

So I drew up a list, and I’m going to knock one out every day for the next few weeks. Tomorrow, I work on A Pact by Ezra Pound.

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.

Do you have any favorite poems? I’m always looking for new poetry to read.

As always, you can also find me on tumblr at, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

2 thoughts on “In Which Ella Memorizes Poetry for Sport

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