Ben Parzybok


You are now free to challenge me

to recite the first poem of the series Letters to Yesenin, by Jim Harrison. A certain joy for you, I’m sure.

Not only that, I’ve begun the next poem, and within a few days time you may challenge me to orate the first and the second, one after the other, if your tolerance for that sort of thing is high enough. By the end of the month, who knows how long I may be able to hold you captive.

I used to read a lot of poetry. I ran a unique poetry journal for a number of years. But after reading thousands of submissions, I tired of it. In college Harrison’s slim collection was a bit of a watershed moment for me, as I paced alongside someone else talking himself out of suicide. It’s a tremendous pleasure to return to the collection.

But also: I’m a first class technogeek, and as a programmer I’m close to the machine. I’ve begun to wonder about its effect on my health — the constant connectivity, the loss of orality, the endless stream of ‘small’ thoughts. My memory does not seem to be what it used to. I do not remember peoples’ names, words I know I know dissipate into a fog — but none of this matters, right? Because I live in a machine-assisted world. As my own brain spends more time with information synthesis, I rely on my devices to store that information in increasing amounts. Remember when you used to know a dozen phone numbers?

But after listening to Benjamen Walker interview Douglas Rushkoff about his book Present Shock (NYT review) (listen to the podcast here, it’s worth it), where many of my half-formed thoughts on our weird present were clarified, I decided to make some changes to ensure that my mind had time to wander much more effectively into deep waters (where, I think, the interesting stuff happens). I’m cutting back on the information I comb through. I’m keeping my phone pocketed more. I’m challenging myself with memorization which I think could be considered a sort of meditation (my mother, a yoga teacher and lifelong meditator might probably challenge this…), but which I also consider to be just good brain muscle-building (here is a great article on why we should memorize poetry from the New Yorker).

I am attempting to better synthesize what ought to remain personally important from what is not.

The goal is to have memorized the whole book of 40 poems (phew!). This is in part inspired by Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which the main character Thomas Cromwell is said to have the entire New Testament committed to heart. And also a shout out to Laura, with whom I discuss these things, and who is currently asking her high school students memorize work.

Happy National Poetry Month!


Author: Benjamin Parzybok

My name is Ben Parzybok and I'm a novelist and programmer living in Portland, OR. @sparkwatson



  1. I am in the middle of the book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering” by Joshua Foer. It is a fascinating look at the subject of remembering, from the great Greek orators whose memorization was likened to intelligence to modern day chess champions who memorize strategic moves and games and look forward hundreds of moves. I have a hard time with Mandarin Chinese for many reasons, not least of which is my fading memory. The book gave me some ideas about creating a sort of flash-card app that would use these ancient techniques to assist people’s memorization.

  2. Hey Matt – sounds like a great book, I’ll check it out. I’d love to hear some of the memorization techniques. I made a flashcard app when I was living in Ecuador, but that was 2002, and that code has got to be knob and tube.

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