On the Utility of Memorizing Poetry

illustration by David Rowe from "Financial Review" website

illustration by David Rowe from “Financial Review” website

Each year, our English Department requires all students to memorize a poem of at least fourteen lines and recite it in front of their classes.

Students choose the poems they recite, so the first step in the process is for them to read poems in search of a ditty or two that strike their fancy. Obviously, it forces them to read poetry.  Of course, every year a student asks if he can recite song lyrics instead, and I say no.

I explain that very few song lyrics can stand alone on the naked page without musical accompaniment. I recite these lyrics from Dylan’s “To Ramona (which, of course, I’ve memorized):

From fixtures and forces and friends

Your sorrow does stem

That hype you and type you

Making you feel

That you gotta be exactly like them

I’d forever talk to you

But soon my words

Would turn into a meaningless ring

For deep in my heart

I know there is no help I can bring

Everything passes

Everything changes

Just do what you think you should do

And someday maybe

Who knows, baby

I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.

And then I recite these lines from Yeats, which, again I know “by heart.”

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.

The difference is palatable.

Of course, the question of why memorize comes up. What’s the purpose? You’ll just forget it anyway, etc. I explain that in times of despair that poetry can provide solace by articulating powerfully the human condition, which has remained essentially the same over the course of centuries.

Ben Jonson’s dead son is my brother-in-law’s dead son.

My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.

Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, could I lose all father now!

I tell them that possessing a storehouse of poetry in the record collection of their minds can also come in handy at cocktail parities. Why rely on your own feeble wit when you can conjure TS Eliot?

On November the 9th, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought, and I said,

“I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

If he’d asked me how I felt, I would have said, “like ragwater, bitters, and blue ruin.”

Anyway, this year, I’ve decided to memorize a poem myself, and I have chosen Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

 

Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

What in the hell does that mean? Here’s one cool, jazzy take from Kenneth Lincoln:

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal “knobs” transpose to “horny” bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman’s body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her “horny feet” index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and “dumb” as the “slovenly wilderness”: feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate “base” of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered “fantails” on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, “Let the lamp” of nature “affix its beam,” the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset.

[snip]

With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of “The Snow Man”). There’s a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in “cream” made of “ice” (Carolina “aspic nipples” sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter’s absence, the snow man’s “nothing” curdled by sweet belief.

So, fast-forward to that future cocktail party where some jackass is plastering lipstick on some political or theological or philosophical pig.

Simply say, “Let be be the finale of seem/The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”

Chances are his rejoinder won’t be in “boisterous iambic pentameter.”

emperor-illustration

3 thoughts on “On the Utility of Memorizing Poetry

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