During our school gatherings, whether online or in-person, Interim Director Elizabeth Majerus has a tradition of reciting poems for us, often for us to reflect on or in relation to our current situation. Her poems can offer a sense of normalcy, and connection to the school community. Now, as it is the season for finals and the holidays, we may be missing this feeling even more so than usual, so here is a backstory on these shared poems and her love of poetry!
One thing that we may all be wondering is how Majerus picks her poems. There are endless pieces of poetry in existence, but she handpicks her favorites. She explains that she has dozens of poems she knows by heart already, (around 50 poems!) and she usually chooses one from this collection.
Another factor that helps her decide is the situation. She says as she tries to find a poem she “thinks about what’s going on, and what poem speaks to the moment.” At the beginning of this school year in our virtual assembly, she shared the poem “Trees” by Philip Larkin. Majerus says: “I was thinking about nature and I chose the poem the trees because it seemed like a poem that helps us remember the majesty of the outdoor world […] especially as we’re ending summer and everybody’s forced to stay inside more because we have school.”
This insight gives us an idea of how she picks her other poems as well! Majerus also shares that “one poem can be relevant for a number of different occasions or ideas […] because there’s different ways to interpret a poem, which is nice for making a poem a jumping-off point for talking about something.”
She also enlightens us on how this tradition first started. She has been a part of the Uni High staff for 20 years, but this tradition of memorizing and verbally sharing poetry comes from before her time here. She says that being an English teacher all her adult life, so reading poetry comes naturally to her. Now, she likes to pass her time when she is taking walks or riding her bike, by memorizing a poem. Her tradition of sharing poetry with her students actually originates from one of her former students.
She shares a heartfelt story from when she taught at a middle school. Majerus says, “the first poem I ever memorized as an adult was a poem called “A Musical Instrument” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the reason I did it was because I had a student who was memorizing it. […] I had my students keeping a journal of the books they were reading about. And as I was looking at her journal, I came across the poem written in her handwriting, and I actually didn’t know that poem, I was struck by it.” She then goes on to explain she asked the student what inspired her to write it down, and the student said “I was going to memorize the poem, and I heard that if you write a poem out by hand, it helps you memorize the poem.” Majerus says that this statement ended up affecting her and says, “[it] really struck me, it made me kind of excited to try. […] I was so pleased after I had memorized that poem that I decided to continue.”
We all know that Majerus loves poetry, but she goes further to express just how strong her love is. When asked to explain why she is so drawn to poetry and why she loves it so much, she sighs and says, “Wow, I could talk about that for an hour, at least.” She goes on to give us a peek into her mind. She says, “Art is essential to the human spirit. […] human beings have been engaging in the creation of and sharing of art, pretty much as long as there have been human communities. Poetry is the original form of literary art. Before any other kind of literature existed, poetry existed. People told stories in the form of poems.” Majerus is a lover of art, but poetry is special to her. She says: “I love art. I love music, I love visual art, I love films, but I think poetry is my favorite kind of art because I really do think it’s kind of magical. It takes something and makes it something else. There are a lot of different ways to define poetry.” However, Majerus shares her favorite definition of poetry, which was given to her by her former poetry teacher, Lucy Brock-Broido “A poem is smaller than itself.” She says that although poems can be short, they can contain more substance than a longer text.
Majerus has a poem she would like to share with the Uni community, and those of you reading this article today. Here is a message from her: I am attaching my recitation of the poem “Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest” by B. H. Fairchild. This is a favorite poem of mine because I love its rich, gritty sounds and vivid images, and I find its depiction of a childhood memory crystallized forever in the mind by images and key words compelling and true to my own experience of childhood. I also wanted to share an example of a free verse poem that I’ve learned by heart, since I find free verse poetry to be more challenging to memorize than rhymed poems (but worth it!).