Writers: how many poems do you have memorized? Did you set out to memorize them? Was it demanded of you by a teacher? Did you just read them so many times they became imprinted on your amygdala? When you recite those poems – if you ever do; muttering verses to yourself while you run the vacuum or pulling out a stageworthy rendering of “Ozymandias” to astound tipsy computer programmers at your spouse’s company holiday party – what do you feel? This is not a rhetorical question. I want to know.
This summer I had the good fortune to be invited as a guest scholar to the University of Washington’s summer creative writing session, a month-long poetry intensive run out of the University’s outpost in central Rome. The students were primarily undergrads, many of them science majors or otherwise new to creative writing, taking advantage of an opportunity to nail down a humanities requirement under felicitous circumstances. The program was both rigorous and flexible, with students responsible for attending various lectures, workshops and outings, critiquing one another’s drafts, and generally living the life of the literary expatriate with as much appetite and verve as possible.
One of the program’s requirements was that each student had to memorize, and correctly recite, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” If they messed it up they had to do it again. Recitations were heard before workshops, at villas and museums, at the end of lecture periods or whatever time presented itself, but we all heard those lines recited, confidently, hesitantly, shyly or with an oratory aplomb Ian McKellen would envy, more times than I can count.
At first I thought: wow, what a quaint, funny, old-school thing to do. It almost seemed like a kind of fraternity hazing ritual. You wanna be a poet, eh? Prove it. URN it. (Sorry, that just slipped out.) But as I listened, time after time, in the ruined groves of Hadrian’s Villa and the echo-riddled entryway of a palazzo with a gravity-defying Boromini spiral staircase, in classrooms and gardens, to those 19th century rhymes, to Keats’s unfaltering, surefooted metricality, something started to happen to me. I knew this poem, had never memorized it, but it’s hard to get through even a rudimentary education in literature without “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” The poem, which I doubt I’d given much thought to since my early teens, was so familiar that it was strange to realize that if I were called upon to recite it, I’d fall on my face.
Anyway, hearing the endless iterations of “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss / Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” – well, the first thing that hit me was something like: easy for him to say, he died at twenty-six. But following on the heels of that was something about why it is inherently important -- cognitively? Emotionally? -- to memorize.
Of course, the earliest tradition of poetry was oral, Bardic – intended for public recitation and passed down by memorization. But it does something for us even in an age where it’s the page, not the lyre, that rules, and where rhyme and meter, tools that no doubt contributed to your ability to retain childhood nursery rhymes, have been subject to derision for decades. The very word “rote” connotes ideas that are largely anathema to us. Something servile, something mindless.
Memorize a poem and you’ll quickly learn that the act is anything but mindless, and anything but servile. There is some kind of primal magic that occurs when a matrix of beautiful or meaningful or harrowing words becomes fused with your consciousness. I saw it. I saw it again and again, on the faces of the Keats reciters, for some of whom this was almost certainly the first time they had ever been made to memorize a poem. Even on the faces of the workshop leaders, who do this every flipping year and who murmured along, time after time, eyes half-closed, larynxes silently keeping pace as they mouthed those words to themselves. It was mastery. And it was elation. Memorized poems are something extraordinary, I suspect, part prayer, part talisman, part party trick and part acknowledgment of something fundamentally human, a shared history, a common origin.
I “know” many poems, pieces of them, stray lodged lines or stanzas, fragments that haunt, uneradicatable bits. But memorized to the point where I could recite them on demand? Not that many. Thom Gunn’s “Tamer and Hawk.” James Merrill’s “About the Phoenix” and “The Victor Dog.” Large sections, but certainly not the sequential entirety, of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam. Cavafy’s “Ithaka.” Frost’s “The Most of It” and “Directive.” Yeats’s “When You Are Old” and “The Two Trees.” Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Ballad of William Sycamore” because it’s the one poem my father memorized and he recited it so often, and with such a mystical air about him, that I couldn’t help but absorb it.
And after this summer, if I ever slip a single syllable of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” someone will need to promptly involve a neurologist.
Poet Frank Giampietro has collected a wonderful group of memorized and recited poems, which you can hear at www.poemsbyheart.org . Each poet gives a brief explanation of why they memorized the poem, and then recites. There are recordings by Alan Shapiro, Claudia Emerson, Robert Pinsky and a host of other wonderful voices (Greg Brownderville’s recitation of Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse” is particularly chill-provoking). Check it out.
And consider this: what does it mean when a piece of writing gets so far under your skin that it becomes part of you? What does it mean to master the words of a master? What do you know, after memorizing a poem, that you didn’t know before?
Not a rhetorical question. I’ve been pondering this since July and I don’t have answers. Why memorize? I’m certain that, cognitively, psychically, it changes you. Why, and how, are probably up for debate, and are likely personal.
Beauty is Truth; Truth Beauty. That is all….