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Memory and Poetry
by David Matthews
I have long been envious of Harold Bloom for his flypaper memory for
poetry. Apparently poetry just sticks with him and has from childhood.
Fortunate man. If memory serves, I read somewhere that Bloom believes the
fact that he did not live in a house with a television in it until his mid
thirties may have something to do with that remarkable capacity. As my
friend Max says, television sucks your brain out through your eyeballs.
Over the years I have saved a few favorite short poems and passages
from long poems to memory, and of late I have taken considerable pleasure in
adding to the collection. Not in any systematic fashion, but with the sense
that I will keep at it, slowly but slowly adding new material to the library
of the mind. A bit of John Keats here, some Emily Dickinson there, a John
Berryman Dreamsong —"Filling her compact & delicious body / with chicken
páprika, she glanced at me / twice. / Fainting with interest, I hungered
back / and only the fact of her husband & four other people / kept me from
springing on her..."—ah, poetry.
Memorization entails work and discipline. (Alas, sports trivia stays
with me far more readily than poetry.) Though it does not come easily, the
experience is pleasurable and rewarding and goes quite beyond the initial
satisfaction at simply having accomplished it. The close attention that goes
with memorization makes for a closer reading of a poem than one might
otherwise give, which we sometimes find gives rise not to resolution and
understanding but to more questioning. Luckily, full understanding of a poem
is not a prerequisite for getting something from it. I seldom have the sense
that I really know what Emily Dickinson is up to, yet she stirs my restless
spirit. "There's a certain Slant of light / Winter Afternoons— / That
oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes—". So the poem begins, going
on to its dazzling conclusion: "When it comes, the Landscape listens— /
Shadows—hold their breath— / When it goes, 'tis like the Distance / On the
look of Death—".
I carry that slant of light, and Keats' shape of beauty that moves
away the pall from our dark spirits, and Wordsworth's deep power of joy,
with me now wherever I go. There is a power in this that should not be
mistaken for the power to make me a better person. Rather, as Bloom puts it:
"Poetry, at the best, does us a kind of violence that prose fiction rarely
attempts or accomplishes. The Romantics understood this as the proper work
of poetry: to startle us out of our sleep of death into a more capacious
sense of life. There is no better reason for reading and rereading the best
of our poetry." (How to Read and Why, p. 142)
Helen Vendler addresses how poetry is taught and the role
memorization might play in this in an interview conducted by Bruce Cole,
chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Cole: You talked about memorizing poetry. People in the past
memorized long patches of poetry, right? This is not happening anymore, is
Vendler: There are many things that aren't happening that would make
the study of poetry natural to children. First of all, poetry should be
taught from the beginning with good poems, not bad poems, and it should be
surrounded by a lot of related language arts-memorizing and reciting and
choral recitation and choral singing and all those things that feed into the
appreciation of poetry.
Right now what teachers mostly do is have the children write poems.
This is distressing to me, because they don't write good poems.
Cole: They don't have many examples, right?
Vendler: No. My colleague, Jorie Graham, insists that her writing
class memorize every week. She has added an extra hour for memory and
recitation, because, as she tells them, would-be poets can't possibly write
out what they haven't taken in.
Cole: I wonder if the skills of memorization have slackened. Since
that is not a part of most people's mental furnishings, it's just much
Vendler: It all depends on cultural values.... I've been told that
in Japan everybody, before leaving high school, memorizes the hundred great
poems in the canon. So of course it can be done. Children's minds are
enormously active and retentive. "The Critic's Craft: A Conversation with
Helen Vendler," Humanities, May/June 2004, Volume 25/Number 3
I am particularly struck by Vendler's reference to Jorie Graham's
principle that memorization is important because would-be poets cannot write
what they have not taken in. Speaking strictly for myself on this point, I
observed long ago the role other poems play not just in their influence on
poems I write, not least as a resource for tools with which I might write
more deeply and well than I otherwise could, but also in the impulse to
write at all. When I read "There's a certain Slant of Light / Winter
Afternoons—", I want to make poems of my own, not in copy of Dickinson, but
if I do it well, internalizing what I find in her and turning it to my own
Here is another poem that does it for me, from A Shropshire Lad by
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
I cannot think these sweetly melancholic lines without thinking too
of the place where I grew up, the sky in the west churning orange as the sun
set over the bottoms where we played in wild grass that grew to our waists,
the lingering shadows of a spring twilight in the shade of the wisteria
vine, the sweet fragrance of magnolia blossom outside my bedroom window, and
I feel more strongly alive than I did a moment before.
Carrying poetry with us in memory will almost certainly not make us
better people. It may not make us one whit happier. What it will do is make
the poetry a part of who we are and in doing so make us more open to the
capacity to be startled into a richer, fuller, more capacious sense of life
that is the wellspring of much that is best in us morally, intellectually,