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

From Decadence to the Muni in Three Short Steps

man-ray-meets-wes

 

 

 

Think at last

We have not reached conclusion, when I

Stiffen in a rented house

TS Eliot, “Gerontion”

 

 

When I was young, I courted decadence:

a braless lover in her diaphanous blouse,

my amygdala aglow like phosphoresce,

my rented garret drafty in that crumbling Victorian house.

 

However, in middle age, decadence became passé,

radiators were ditched for central heat,

Man Ray lost out to Andrew Wyeth, and Sunday buffets

replaced sleeping the Sabbath away until three.

 

Now I am old, our children grown,

and though retirement offers a chance to pivot,

I must admit my wild seeds have been sown

as I stiffly stoop and replace my divot.

 

 

 

Dialectics

Let’s face it, nuance went out with the rise of cable news.  Not only do politicians not reach across the aisle to seek compromises, but they essentially don’t associate with members of the other parties.  Gone are the days when polar politicians like Orrin Hatch and Teddy Kennedy could become bosom friends, when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil could “after six o’clock” be friends.

 

No, nowadays, middle ground is no man’s land.

Yesterday, as I was showing my tenth graders a clip from Apocalypse Now in conjunction with teaching Heart of Darkness, it occurred to me that the photojournalist’s speech to Willard as Kurtz reads from TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” is a superb commentary on contemporary American politics.  I offer it without comment except for the tidbit that one of the epigraphs for “The Hollow Men” is “Mistuh Kurtz – he dead,” so essentially Kurtz is reading a poem in which he appears.

 

The Hollow Men

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy

I

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

II

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

IV

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

art by Claire Lambe

art by Claire Lambe

 

My TS Eliot Spring Break

illustration by Wesley Moore

illustration by Wesley Moore

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.
Tereu

TS Eliot, “The Waste Land”

Although Yeats gets quoted a lot in these traumatic days – things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc. – TS Eliot was no slouch himself when it came to apocalyptic naysaying. For example, dig this ditty from “The Waste Land”:

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal

Because most of us Americans are consumed with the 24/7 Jerry Springer extravaganza that is the current presidential campaign, I doubt if your casual consumer of the news is aware that Europe’s political turmoil makes ours seem rather bland by comparison.

For example, on New Years Eve in Cologne, Germany, gangs of young males assaulted scores of females celebrating the holiday. Some blame newly arrived Muslim immigrants for the outrages while others suggest caution before jumping to conclusions.

Here’s a snippet from the conservative British paper the Spectator:

The German police made a similar point: they are used to handling drunks. But gangs of young men encircling and then groping women at large public gatherings: who has ever heard of such a thing?

In the Arab world, it’s something of a phenomenon. It has a name: ‘Taharrush gamea’. Sometimes the girls are teased and have their veils torn off by gangs of young men; sometimes it escalates into rape. Five years ago, this form of attack was the subject of an award-winning Egyptian film, 678. Instances of young men surrounding and attacking girls were reported throughout the Arab Spring protests in Cairo in 2011 and 2012. Lara Logan, a CNN journalist covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak, was raped in Tahrir Square. Taharrush gamea is a modern evil, and it’s being imported into Europe. Our authorities ought to be aware of it

On the other hand, here is Ishaan Tharoor from the Washington Post:

To be sure, there are legitimate security concerns posed both by the surge in new arrivals as well as the continuing instability and conflicts in the Middle East. The attacks in Cologne, writes the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud, were a reminder to the West of the Muslim world’s “sick relationship with women” — a product both of patriarchal and religious norms as well as the stifling legacy of authoritarian rule.

But perverse, misogynist behavior is not the province of just one culture or society. And much of Europe’s anti-refugee hysteria, as my colleague Adam Taylor charted this week, has been overblown and fueled by often misleading innuendo and rumor circulating on social media.

Very few of the identified culprits in the Cologne attacks were themselves refugees. And countries like Poland and Hungary, while leading the conservative charge against E.U. policies that would allow in desperate Middle Eastern asylum seekers, still have minuscule Muslim populations of their own. The risk of a cultural invasion somehow contaminating their societies is, frankly, a phantasm conjured by fear-mongers.

Of course, this week, we Americans were treated to some man-on-woman physicality when police charged Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with battery after an encounter with “former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields.”

In this case, we have video, so you can make up your mind yourself.*


*My personal view is that by the standards of Summerville High School that encounter doesn’t approach “battery.”

The bottom line is that the big blinding, buzzing cacophony of computerized existence obliterates contemplation. The blitzkrieg of information, much of it contradictory, is harmful for a species who has spent most of its existence sitting in small groups on a savannah among birdsong and rustling leaves.

The ruling class – the Koch Bros, etc. – should know that oligarchies lead to revolutions, that the Occupy Movement was a Shakespearian comet of foreboding, but who has time to contemplate history or to think beyond tomorrow’s Dow Jones closing averages?

Then there’s Hillary trying to thread the needle between big business and young debt-ridden would-be socialists as she attempts to be all things to all people.

Meanwhile, followers of Bernard Sanders engage in magical thinking imaging 30+ redneck gerrymandered districts somehow going blue so that he’ll be able to break up the banks, overhaul our healthcare system, make college free while by creating the largest middle class tax hike in the history of our republic.

What we see here in the Republican Party – factionalism – is also playing out in Europe. Things are falling apart – perhaps most alarmingly, glaciers!

Oh, by the way, it’s my spring break, and we all know that April is the cruelest month, so I’ve been having a sort of TS Eliot holiday, riding around with the radio/cd player off, popping Ativans like M&Ms, reciting poetry out loud to myself:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.

As the Lone Ranger used to say, “Adios!”