Friday, February 01, 2013

Why We Should Memories Poetry !

Brad Leithauser
Brad E. Leithauser (Born : 27 February 1953) is an American poet, novelist, essayist, and teacher. After serving as the Emily Dickinson Lecturer in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke College and visiting professor at the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he is now on faculty at The Johns Hopkins University in the writing seminars department. Presenting an article by him : Being Poet
Much of our daily lives would be dizzyingly unrecognizable to people living a hundred years ago: what we wear and what we eat, how we travel, how we communicate, how we while away our leisure time. But, surely, our occasional attempts to memorize a poem would feel familiar to them—those inhabitants of a heyday of verse memorization. Little has changed. They, too, in committing a poem to memory, underwent a predictable gamut of frustrations: the pursuit of stubbornly elusive phrases, the inner hammering of rote repetition, tantalizing tip-of-the-tongue stammerings, confident forward marches that finish in an abrupt amnesiac’s cul-de-sac.
Actually, if the process has altered over the years, perhaps we feel the difficulties of the task more acutely than our ancestors did. As a college professor of writing and literature, I regularly impose memorization assignments, and I’m struck by how burdensome my students typically find them. Give them a full week to memorize any Shakespeare sonnet (“Hey,” I tell them, “pick a really famous one—Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?—and you’ve already got the first line down”), and a number of them will painfully falter. They’re not used to memorizing much of anything.
In what would have been my prime recitation years had I been born in an earlier era—junior high and high school—little memorization was required of me. But in early boyhood I did a fair amount of it. My mother, who had literary ambitions, paid me a penny a line to memorize poems. The first one I mastered was Tennyson’s “The Eagle” (“He clasps the crag with crooked hands”), which brought in a haul of six cents. Opportunistically, I moved on to the longer “Casey at the Bat” (“It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day”) and Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (whose title I mispronounced for decades), which netted me fifty-two cents and twenty-four cents respectively. Some Longfellow, some Frost. I straggled through Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and enough of his “The Ancient Mariner” to purchase a couple of candy bars.
It sounds whimsical and entertaining now, but I suspect some dead-serious counsel lay behind my mother’s beaming encouragement. I think she was tacitly saying, “Stick with poetry—that’s where the money is.”
It turned out to be levelheaded advice. Today, I pay my bills by talking to my students about poetry, and about stories and novels and essays—ultimately, about memorable cadences, about the music that occasionally lifts off of words carefully deployed on a page.
* * *
It’s tempting to sentimentalize an era in which poetry—memorized, recited poetry—held so prominent a place in the culture. But its once-substantial role turns out to be a mixed and complicated tale, as thoroughly chronicled in Catherine Robson’s new “Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.” Reared in England, now a professor at N.Y.U., Robson compares classroom procedures in Britain and the United States during the years when recitation held a sizeable and official slot in the curriculum (roughly 1875 to 1950). The rationales for verse recitation were many and sometimes mutually contradictory: to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; to strengthen the brain through exercise; and so forth. And the construction of a canon—the choice of which poems ought to be assigned to students at various grade levels—grew out of a collision of nationalistic zeal, piety, commercial enterprise (the success or failure of various competitive “readers”—what we would call textbooks), thoughtless imitation, and a fair amount of what looks like happenstance.
Robson grounds her book with three “case studies.” (She occasionally takes on a dry, clinical tone.) The first is Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca,” a poem that survives today largely as a first line (“The boy stood on the burning deck”), with a vague suspicion that what follows has often been parodied. (Poor Tom Sawyer was afflicted by it in the classroom.) The second may be the most celebrated of eighteenth-century English poems, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The third is a poem previously unknown to me, Charles Wolfe’s charming ballad “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna.” Each poem was at one time universally embraced, both by society and by educators.
“The Burial of Sir John Moore” has a likably homespun texture and offers, from a pedagogical standpoint, a salutary lesson about the triumph of courage over grandeur. (General Moore died, in 1809, in Spain, while leading his troops to a magnificent long-shot victory over the French, and his last words were, “I hope my country will do me justice.” Military exigency did not allow time for a suitable burial—a lack for which the poem seeks to indemnify him.) But the other two poems look like extremely peculiar candidates for widespread memorization. The forty-line “Casabianca,” which was put to memory by countless pre-adolescents, is grotesquely grisly: it tells the tale of a boy sailor who, while prudence is shouting at him to beat a hasty retreat, dutifully remains at his post (“he would not go / Without his Father’s word; / That father, faint in death below, / His voice no longer heard”), and, as a consequence, is blown to smithereens. As for Gray’s lovely, leisurely, dusky elegy, nothing much happens in its hundred and twenty-eight lines, and, as a result, his many scene-setting stanzas are easily confused and transposed by the would-be memorizer; to hold it all in one’s head is a somewhat perverse feat, like those jigsaw-puzzle aficionados who, finding their task insufficiently challenging, put the puzzle together face-side-down.
Though “Casabianca” and “The Burial of Sir John Moore” are actually nineteenth-century poems, they partake of that misty, moss-and-granite melancholy one associates with those of Gray’s contemporaries known as the Graveyard Poets (or the Boneyard Boys). These were a pallid bunch, for whom cemeteries were what bars and brothels would be for many French poets of the nineteenth century—a comfy home away from home. They were continually reminding us that we all have one foot in the grave. It’s a weighty burden to drop on the scrawny shoulders of some ten-year-old boy or girl, standing hunched and terrified before a scowling, correction-bent teacher.
* * *
My late colleague Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996, used to appall his students by requiring them to memorize something like a thousand lines each semester. He felt he was preparing them for the future; they might need such verses later in life. His own biography provided a stirring example of the virtues of mental husbandry. He’d been grateful for every scrap of poetry he had in his head during his enforced exile in the Arctic, banished there by a Soviet government that did not know what to do with his genius and that, in a symbolic embrace of a national policy of brain drain, expelled him from the country in 1972.
Brodsky was a nonpareil in various ways, not least in being the only teacher I knew who continued to smoke during class as the air-purifying nineties rolled around. He loved to recite poetry. The words emerged through smoke, and a thick Russian accent, but the conviction and import were unmistakable: to take a poem to heart was to know it by heart.
I’m struck by how, in the seventeen years since his death, the meaning and justifications for verse memorization have shifted. The effort in its acquisition may be the same, but we’d be naïve to suppose the necessity behind it is unaltered.
Memorized poems are a sort of larder, laid up against the hungers of an extended period of solitude. But today we are far less solitary than we were even a few years ago. Anyone equipped with a smartphone—many of my friends would never step outdoors without one—commands a range of poetry that beggars anything the brain can store. Let’s say it’s a gorgeous afternoon in October. You’re walking through a park, and you wish to recall—but can’t quite summon—the opening lines of Keats’ “To Autumn.” With a quick tap-tap-tap, you have it on your screen. You’re back in the nineteenth century, but you’re also in the twenty-first, where machine memory regularly supplants and superannuates brain memory.
So why undergo the laborious process of memorizing a poem these days, when—tap, tap, tap—you have it at your fingertips? Has this become another outmoded practice? When I was a Boy Scout, in the sixties, I spent some hours trying to learn Morse code and even, on a couple of overly sunny, headachey afternoons, trying to communicate by flag semaphore. Some things were meant to disappear. (And many of my students wish that assignments to memorize poems would follow them.)
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
After all this time, I still have every word of Tennyson’s “Eagle.” He’s a literal part of me, which perhaps accounts for his splendid supremacy in my imagination. No other bird I’ve encountered in poems since—not Keats’ nightingale, or Hardy’s thrush, or Frost’s oven bird, or Clampitt’s kingfisher—can compete with him, roosting as he does in an aerie at the top of the world. Here’s the poem in entirety:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Six cents. It was a cheap thrill, and an everlasting one.
(source :