23 March 2006

Memorizing poetry

Read: Part of RoadSense for Drivers: BC's Safe Driving Guide (in preparation for taking the test to get my British Columbia driver's license); Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness" (see below)

Listened to: More Italian vocabulary; Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 8 in D (a version transcribed for winds), in streaming audio over KING-FM, Seattle's 24-hour classical music station; I'm listening to the latter from up in Vancouver as I type this (oh, the wonders of the Internet!)

Today I picked up and leafed through my copy of Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize (edited by John Hollander), looking for a poem to work on memorizing. My mother grew up in an era where every schoolchild was required to memorize lots of poetry, and she sure did! I missed out on that, so I've been trying to make up for lost time. I selected Milton's "On His Blindness," which was already quite familiar to me, but I'd never gotten it down by heart. After an hour working on it in the car on the drive up to Vancouver today (before switching on the Italian lessons CD), I pretty much have got it. (Don't tell the BC driver's licensing folks that I was reading a book of poetry -- albeit only one line at a time, and with very infrequent glances -- while driving!!)

There are so many benefits to memorizing poetry. It becomes a part of you and shapes your appreciation of other poems. It nourishes your imagination and helps inspire your own poetry (or other art form). It can become part of your prayer language, just as memorized hymns can be (and are for me in a big way); hymns are, after all, a special kind of poetry. When, in your waning years, you begin to lose your short-term memory, the poems and songs and Scripture you've memorized will be some of the last things to go (along with childhood memories; a great argument for filling up a child's memory bank with wonderful experiences to keep her in happy reverie in her senescence).

Of course, as with any anthology, Committed to Memory is one particular person's (or committee's) idea of what are the "best" poems to memorize. I have begun making my own anthologies of poems and things, because others' collections never quite cut it as my own definitive list. However, I find it helpful to use others' canons of "great books" or "must-have classical recordings" as a jumping off point for making my own lists. I probably have about two dozen books of the "list of books" genre, including The NY Public Library's Books of the Century, Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan, etc.

So... Do you memorize poetry? What are some poems you would put on your own "best poems to memorize" list? Why? What makes a poem good to memorize? I have some incipient thoughts on this, but will wait to develop them further and see what others write before posting them. I will at least tantalize you with a few of the poems I've got so far in my personal anthology of poems to memorize. All but the last two are commonly anthologized and probably frequently memorized, but I'm glad to have found a couple that make my own list unique.

"Love (III)" (Herbert)
"God's Grandeur" and "Pied Beauty" (Hopkins)
"Fire and Ice," "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Frost)
"The Apologist's Evening Prayer" (C.S. Lewis)
"Nativity" (R.S. Thomas)


Rosie Perera said...

I just stumbled upon this wonderful poem in my personal anthology of favorites and realized how apropos it was to the current thread. Read the poem to find out another benefit of memorizing poetry!

[Arggh!! Once again I gripe about Blogger; this poem will look better if you view it by following the permalink from the original post instead of in the "post a comment" page where it wraps funny]

Miracle On St David’s Day

“They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.”
-- “The Daffodils”
by William Wordsworth

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun, a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes, the woman is absent.
A big mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb, labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites "The Daffodils".

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech, and that once he had something to say.

When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers’ silence. A thrush sings,
and the daffodils are flame.

Gillian Clarke, Collected Poems, Carcanet 1997, © Gillian Clarke

[I first heard this read by Regent Professor Loren Wilkinson, either in his class on "Christianity & Literature" or in "The Christian Imagination"; both of which classes I'm sure I'll be drawing upon for future posts to this blog; I found a copy of the poem online here]

Iambic Admonit said...

Like hiding God's word in our hearts, hiding great poetry in our minds yields rich rewards. I memorize poetry—not as much as I’d like—and have always been thrilled to find those words in those particular orders rattling or singing around in my head. I love reciting it to my students at appropriate moments: they are impressed, which makes them want to do it or at least makes them sit up and listen a little better. I love having lines available when I see a remarkable unfolding of nature: “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” or “Margaret, are you grieving/ over golden grove unleaving?” I have many more lines and phrases than full poems. I never hear the word “hedgerows” without saying “hedgerows, hardly hedgerows / little lines of sportive wood gone wild.” I’ve got a few complete Millay sonnets, “Batter My Heart by John Donne, lots of parts of Shakespeare and Rilke sonnets (“O this is the creature that does not exist!”), lines and stanzas from Herbert, snatches of Higgins .
Seamus Heaney came and spoke at Bread Loaf when I was studying there last summer. His inspirational talk was all about living with poetry until it becomes part of you, part of your thoughts, your speech, your writing, your life. His conversation is peppered with phrases in Saxon and Gaelic cadences, lines out of Beowulf and his own writings, bits of Irish folk songs, stanzas from Frost and Shakespeare and Dante. Of course, that Belfast accent adds weight to his most mundane sayings!

Mehitchcock said...

I only have two poems memorized.
"This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams
and a little French poem I think is by Rilke. The sound of it pleases me as much as the meaning.
Je le vue
et dans sans sourire
dans se jeux
plein feu charmant
tu emu mon couer
a pu lire
le bonheur
de vivre en laimant

I have seen her
and in her smile
and in her eyes filled with a charming fire
My hear, deeply moved,
could imagine the happiness
of a life spent loving her.

I'm quite sorry that my French is almost non-existant. I know I've spelled at least half od the words wrong. But I am told I say them beautifully, which really is all that matters to me.

Read today, "Hero" by Joe Haldeman

Listened today, "Sigfried's Funeral March" from, um, Die Valkurie, I think by Wagner.

Rosie Perera said...

Funny, I can never hear the word "hedgerow" without singing (in my head), "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow..." (Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven")

Iambic Admonit said...

"Miracle On St David’s Day" is a beautiful story. Thank you for posting that. It's beyond touching; it holds both the pain and the recompense for fallenness. What a beautiful moment in an ugly day, in a confused life!

But, you know, it's not wonderful poem, as a poem. It would have been better as a little story. The line breaks are awkward, the diction prosaic. The words are not chosen for their sounds, their rhythms, their music. It does not live the moment now, as Scott Cairns enjoins poets to do. It sits back and says, "This thing did happen." It does not happen in the poem. Would that this had been written up to the poignancy of its occasion!

But i do like the last line:
"...and the daffodils are flame."

Do you think I am correct in my critique?

Rosie Perera said...

Read: The New York Review of Books, April 6, 2006, edition; and miscellaneous bits of various books I'm in the middle of

Listened to: bird calls, the sea, wind in the trees (spent three days on Galiano Island, away from computer, CD player, or any technological means of playing music or video)

Yes, I agree with your critique about "Miracle On St David's Day" as far as the diction is concerned. But no fair critiquing the line breaks. As I pointed out in an earlier comment to another post, Blogger's narrow column width puts random line breaks in poems where they weren't intended. So what you're seeing when you view it in the "Post a Comment" page is not the way the poem is supposed to look. Best way to view it is by following the "permalink" (which is the underlined datestamp) on my original post to where you can see my post and all the comments below it, in roughly full screen-width. Still, I agree it is not as great a poem as what Scott Cairns turns out. And perhaps the line breaks are not ideal even when viewed as the poet intended them.

This brings up a question, though: Is it never appropriate to tell a story in poem form? What about the epic poems like Homer's?

Iambic Admonit said...

Oh, no, I did view the comment as you suggested, with the line breaks the way the poet intended them. They're just Not Good. According to me, however much I know! I find them clumsy, awkward, and otherwise un-poetic.

It is often, very often, very very often excellent to tell a story in verse. Or to have a poem be a story. That is not what I meant, not what I meant at all (Prufrock). Narrative poems, blank verse stories, epics, ballads.... all are fantastic!

Just that "Miracle on St. David's Day" is an account I will probably find myself retelling, but I would never dream of memorizing the poem. The words are not arranged to suit, they have not weight and heft and music.

Meanwhile, bring on the epics!!

Rosie Perera said...

Lost another comment down the Blogger black hole again. I believe what I'd said, yesterday or whenever I posted it, was roughly this...

Oh dear, now I understand why my posting the "Miracle On St David's Day" poem here resulted in such a strong response. I didn't ever mean I thought it was a good poem to memorize. I should have clarified that. I just liked it for its story (agreed, that doesn't make a great poem, and I shouldn't have called it "wonderful"). And it was relevant to the current thread, not because it was one I'd like to memorize, but because the story told of a man who benefited from having memorized poetry when he was younger. That's all. Sorry about the miscommunication.

Yes, you're right, the line breaks in the original are clumsy.

Iambic Admonit said...

Oh, don't worry; that's all right. I think we (even thick-headed I) understood your point, not that we should memorize That poem, but rather that it illustrated the point. I guess I just can't let a second-rate poem go by without pointing out that it is! Apologies are needed as much by me. Thanks!

nathan said...

just popped in because Rosie emailed me... no time to read it all, but you're reminding me of a recent post at my favorite blog,