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

Shadow Boxing Earlier in the Day: Clay vs. Ali

cassius_clayIn my boyhood, before adolescence, I began each day by retrieving the newspaper from what we called the front porch, though, in truth, it was more like an elevated stoop, a 6 x 6 concrete slab. If there were a big story, like the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, I’d read it right there, or if there were an untelevised sporting event I cared about, I’d rip open the sports section to discover the outcome. That was the case on 25 February 1964 when Cassius Clay, as he was called in those days, upset Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It was the outcome I had fervently hoped for, and it had happened, despite 7 to 1 odds. I remember sitting on the steps of the stoop, reading the account that included the accusation that Liston had thrown some type of blinding powder in Clay’s eyes.

My father had been an amateur boxer in his youth, a welterweight who developed his skills on the sidewalks of Spring Street in Charleston, SC, during the Depression. Every Friday night he’d watch the fights broadcast on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports as he sat on the sofa smoking cigarette after cigarette, leaning into the television, screaming suggestions to the combatants even though they were hundreds of miles away at Madison Square Garden. He had bought my brother and me boxing gloves and roped off the living room and taught us how to box, to crouch, to throw punches with our “hips” instead of our “arms.” I hated it, being at once weak, blinky, and adverse to pain.

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

But I did enjoy watching the matches, and we liked “Cassius Clay,” because he was funny, brash, clever, a rhymer, and, I’m sorry to say, perhaps because he was “light-skinned,” unlike Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.   Clay, and later, Ali, was also too aware of this distinction in skin tones. Here’s a snippet from Robert Lipsyte’s superb obituary from the Times:

But Ali had his hypocrisies, or at least inconsistencies. How could he consider himself a “race man” yet mock the skin color, hair and features of other African-Americans, most notably Joe Frazier his rival and opponent in three classic matches? Ali called him “the gorilla,” and long afterward Frazier continued to express hurt and bitterness.

Ali would also play upon racial and ethnic stereotypes. Here is a joke he told at a fundraiser in Louisville in 2005:

“If a black man, a Mexican and a Puerto Rican are sitting in the back of a car, who’s driving? Give up? The po-lice.”

And here he is explaining to a Soviet reporter in 1960 why he’s proud to be an American citizen.

“It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.”

In some ways, like my father, he was a man of his times.

However, even though these quips might have gotten Ali dis-invited from a speaking engagement at Oberlin, in the course of his life, he displayed more courage than any other athlete I can think of. Ali was a man of his convictions, willing to make unpopular brand-tarnishing decisions like converting to the Nation of Islam and facing the prospect of prison for refusing to be drafted into the Viet Nam War. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he said, adding, “They ain’t never called me no [racial expletive].”

And Ali sacrificed three prime years when boxing commissions around the country stripped him of his titles, and although the backlash was fierce and many journalists refused to call him by his new name, he earned the respect over time for his principled stands, and, even my father, not exactly a devotee of Malcolm X, continued to pull for Ali upon his return to the ring.

Perhaps it was because Ali was such a beautiful, graceful fighter, poetry –not doggerel — in motion or because he was so witty, possessed such a generous spirit, and these attributes transcended by father’s homegrown prejudices.  Later in life Ali said, “Color doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count. What’s on the outside is only decoration.”

At any rate, it says something positive about our nation that at his death Muhammad Ali was virtually universally admired by his fellow citizens, even, it would seem, Donald Trump.

All leave you with this ditty from the great Bob Dylan:

 

I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day

I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay

I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come

26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine

Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run

99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you

14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen”

 

dylan-ali-2-300x201

Review of Elijah Wald’s “Dylan Goes Electric”

Dylan Goes ElectricI’ve just sailed through the uncorrected proofs of long-title-lover Elijah Wald’s latest, Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties. The book is slated for publication on 15 July 2015, almost fifty years to the day after Dylan shocked the Newport Folk Festival by going electric, and I encourage anyone interested in popular music to check it out.

Wald’s previous books include Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of Popular Music. A musician himself, Wald possesses that rare ability to weave meticulous research into engaging narratives propelled by conversational but polished prose. It’s as if someone with an advanced degree in history and musicology who witnessed the events first hand is talking to you.

Wald begins his chronicle in 1949 with the story of Pete Seeger, yet another one of Harvard’s incredibly successful dropouts. We follow Seeger through the ‘40s and ‘50s as he becomes both an archivist of traditional music and a creator of original “folk songs” like “The Hammer Song (If I Had a Hammer)” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The folk scene of the 50s and early 60s was no love fest, or as Wald puts it, “[The] tendencies and cliques of the American folk scene [. . .] were endlessly tangled, but Seeger served as a guide for virtually everyone, whether they considered themselves traditionalists, revivalists, agitators, or potential pop stars.” Nevertheless, even Seeger himself received criticism from the most rigid of folk purists for associating himself with the Weavers whose polished performances weren’t authentic enough for their tastes.

The-Kingston-Trio-Lemon-Tree-548846This static between the rawness of down-home renditions by performers like Doc Watson and the dulcet harmonies of groups like the Kingston Trio (arrayed in matching outfits) crackles throughout those decades, and Wald does an excellent job of providing a historical context, especially in his depiction of the Red Scare. Wald concludes the first chapter with Seeger’s sentencing in 1961 for contempt of Congress when he refuses to name names of associates with connections to the Communist Party.

The next few chapters detail the familiar but time-obscured transformation of Hibbing-bred Bobby Zimmerman into that self-created icon we call Bob Dylan (whose fanciful verbal autobiography had him hoboing his way across the continent). Wald provides some clarification for those early days, noting that unlike many adolescents who were ignorant of rock ’n’ roll’s R&B roots, Bobby Zimmerman through late night radio broadcasts, especially Frank “Gatemouth” Page’s No Name Jive, discovered the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Wald notes, “Dylan was getting the music direct from its southern source and valued it in part because it was secret knowledge.” Again, we see tension between the authenticity of artists like John Lee Hooker and the co-opting of roots music by white performers like Elvis and Buddy Holly. That Dylan was enamored of R&B before he became a folk singer is well-known but worth repeating, given his eventual embrace of rock ’n’ roll.

In the chapters chronicling Dylan’s hero-worship of Woody Guthrie, his move to New York, his ascent, and eventual coronation as once and future king, we see the continuation of the motif of contention among the folk music community, and at the Newport Folk Festivals of the early-to-mid 60s, these rifts widen into chasms. Wald does a masterful job of relating the events of the festivals, cataloging in detail the eclectic mix of performers that range from obscure yodelers, rock icons like Chuck Berry, blues masters like Lightening Hopkins and John Hurt, Bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, folk interpreters including the Weavers, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins. How fortunate those aficionados who could attend the workshops, scheduled but informal get-togethers where a group of performers swapped songs and provided instruction. Dig this, at the ’64 festival:

“[R]elatively small contingents gathered to hear successive guitar and banjo workshops that included Muddy Waters, Robert Pete Williams, the Hawaiian guitarist Nolan Mahoe, and [Doc] Watson, and then Mike Seeger again with Ralph Stanley, Frank Profit, and Elizabeth Cotton. Meanwhile, over two-thousand people were watching Mike’s half-brother Pete host a topical songs workshop, and although it began with older artists from Ireland, Cuba, and the United States, most of the audience was there for the who’s who of Broadside writers Len Chandler, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Malvina Reynolds, Hedy West, and Dylan.

Among the diverse crowds, we again see animosity of roots music devotees towards college-aged pop fans, and with the British Invasion of the Beatles, Stones, and Animals, folk music had in fact begun its decline in popularity. Of course, the  culmination of the schism occurred on Sunday night, 25 July 1965, when Dylan, as Wald title puts it, goes electric.

Wald’s meticulous detailing of previous festivals makes it crystal clear that Newport was no stranger to amplified music. At the ’65 festival, “[t]here were more amplifiers in evidence [. . .], and they were recognized as a sign of change, but few people considered them as a sign of sacrilege.” The Paul Butterfield blues Band played an electric (and by all reports electrifying) set Saturday as an illustration of the amplified Chicago Blues made famous by Muddy Waters. This performance was part of a sonic history of the folk music presented as a lecture by Alan Lomax, and indicative of the animus inherent in the various authenticity camps, Lomax, a stickler for authenticity, and Alan Grossman, a developer of musical acts (and Dylan’s manager), broke into a a clownish bout of fisticuffs over Grossman’s objections to what he considered Lomax’s disrespectful intro of the Butterfield Band. Wald’s depiction of this incident – a sort of kaleidoscopic presentation from various, sometimes conflicting, witnesses’ perspectives – is alone worth the price of purchase.  Here’s a snippet:

Lomax tried to push Grossman aside, or maybe it was Grossman who pushed Lomax. Either way, in seconds the portly prophet of tradition and the portly purveyor of mammon — “two big bears,” in Maria Muldaur’s description — were throwing inept punches and rolling in the dust.

guitar-at-newport-history-detectivesOf course, all of the various in-fighting that Wald writes about leads up to Dylan’s performance that Sunday night. Because of the not so simple existential fact that except for edited film, all we have to go on is a jumble of individual perspectives from various people sitting in different locations with different attitudes towards Dylan and with memories perhaps corrupted by the passage of time. Wald provides us with a sort of cubist painting, sharing with us a host of individual takes, including a present-tense rendering of the film. He suggests that Dylan’s decision to go electric was impulsive. Perhaps it was a reaction to Lomax’s less than glowing introduction of the Butterfield Band whose guitarist Mike Bloomfield had worked on Highway 61 Revisited and its electric hit “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The make-up of the band also suggests a hasty decision.  It consisted of a hodgepodge of musicians, some of whom were unfamiliar with the tunes. The drummer Sam Lay had heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio but didn’t know who Bob Dylan was. Almost all agree the volume was ear-splitting, especially Bloomfield’s guitar, and the performance uneven (a charitable assessment) with much time wasted on stage tuning up, struggling with the tempo, getting started. According to Wald, the bassist Jerome Arnold played essentially one note throughout much of the performance. Dylan, who had grown accustomed to being idolized, heard perhaps his first boos since high school, though the boos were mixed with cheers. The proportions of boos to cheers (60/40? 50/50? 40/60?) seemed to depend on where you were sitting.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Most upset by the debacle of Dylan’s performance was Pete Seeger who is reported by some to have sought shelter in his car or by others to have run around screaming to turn down the sound, and Wald forever puts to rest the apocryphal story of an ax-wielding Seeger eager to sever the cables.

Wald manages to place the reader in the visceral world of that concert, no mean trick, and wisely avoids ever attempting to psychoanalyze Dylan, who as we all know by now is a restless soul who changes the tunes of his classics when the mood suits him. As an extra added treat, Wald slips into his prose without quotation marks phrases from Dylan’s lyrics, as in the following from the last chapter’s first sentence, “For many people the story of Newport 1965 is simple: Bob Dylan was being born, and anyone who didn’t welcome the change was busy dying.” I think we can all agree — or at least almost all of us can agree — Dylan’s genius could never be constrained within the confines of folk. I don’t know about you, but I prefer Highway 61 to Freewheeling.

Note: As I said, I read the uncorrected proofs so the book is bound to be even better than my version. It’s heavily noted, has a bibliography, and although my copy lacked an index, one will appear in the final edition. As far as errors, I only ran across a couple of typos, except for the phrase, which I hope someone catches — “the nameless protagonist of Albert Camus’s Stranger.” The protagonist’s name is Meursault.