I watched and heard my students say these lines, and so many more, one day in January. They were embodying poems they'd learned by heart, each one saying two: one of 25 lines or fewer, and one composed before the twentieth century was. We were following the rules of Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The next day, nine of those students took part in our school-wide competition. The winner, a junior who said the words of Kate Bass's "The Albatross" with an understanding well beyond her years, competed the following month in the city-wide contest, where she placed runner-up to a young woman who breathed life into Dororthy Wordsworth and Gwendolyn Brooks. Weeks later, she was reciting in the state's capital. The winner there, who recited "The Nail," by C.K. Williams, a wounded reverie on the ways in which power turns to brutality, will be flown to Washington, D.C., this month for the national finals.
As I watched my students say the words they'd come to know by curious heart, I thought of Osip Mandelstam.
In 1933, at a late-night party, he'd recited a poem of his own making, a brutal satire of Stalin's brutal rule. The poet knew the risks involved in reading such a work in such a space; the poem's very power gathered from the climate of oppression and paranoia. A friend of a friend, whom he didn't quite know, to grease some wheel, might turn him in.
The wheel was greased. The poet and his wife were soon conveyed by force to internal exile within the further reaches of the state, where Mandelstam was seized by a force more enduring: poem after poem arrived to the freedom of his mind. Notebooks, though: they could be found and burned. So Nadezhda Mandelstam committed every line of her husband's words to her memory.
Thus it was that long after Osip Mandelstam fell inside the freezing barracks of a secret transit camp called Vtoraya Rechka, and long after Stalin had declared the name of Osip Mandelstam verboten, a national ban that lasted until twenty years after the poet passed — thus it was that Osip Mandelstam, known by heart by one who loved him, lived on.
"I met a traveler from and antique land" . . . "I wandered lonely as a cloud" . . . "A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall / papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves / covered with oilcloth." . . . "I hear a snap and a sound like falling rain."