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

Two Stanzas of Ottava Rima Written in Earshot of a Skate Board Park

Skateboard Wipeout by Robert Mooney

Skateboard Wipeout by Robert Mooney

 

 

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing   

Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.

                                                                      WB Yeats

 

Willie B makes it seem so damned easy,

each iamb in it is appointed place,

but whenever I try it, I feel sleazy,

like a Byron wannabe pissing in the lake.

Yet even to Yeats it didn’t come easy.

A line would take him hours. Better to “break

stones,” he whined, “in all kinds of weather”

than try “to articulate sweet sounds together.”

 

Form versus execution. I hear the clatter

of skateboarders’ failed attempts at competence.

They flip the board, fall off, curse, batter

their knees as they try to perform the tricks

they see on TV — as if mind over matter

weren’t a myth, as if practice makes perfect,

as if talent can be willed. I say

time to shut down this computer, call it a day.

 

Open-Eyed, Laughing: In Memory of Pat Conroy

patAlthough I didn’t know Pat Conroy well at all – maybe five close encounters (including one at our house on Folly Beach) – I was, however, privy to his condition during his last days because while Pat received treatment at MUSC, I met his daughters Megan and Jessica Sunday night for a drink downtown, and they ended up staying with us Monday night at the beach before heading back to Beaufort on Tuesday where Pat passed away.

Even though I only hung with Pat a view times, I could detect the hurt beneath his quick smile and alert eyes. Like many who have suffered bleak childhoods, he viewed life through the blackest of shades and attempted to illuminate that darkness through flashes of sardonic humor. If he hadn’t been a novelist, he could have made a fortune doing stand-up. I certainly hope somebody somewhere has recorded his story about not taking Barbra Streisand’s calls because he thought she was his pal Bernie playing a practical joke.

Pat remembered and cared about you. A year and a half ago when we were visiting Megan at his house at Fripp, Pat told me that I had a good life, that teaching English was a good life. A couple of weeks ago at his house in Beaufort, the first time I’d seen him since, he again asked me about my teaching, if I had retired. He insisted on getting up as Judy and I were leaving.

He knew he was a goner but was stoic and flashed that quick smile throughout our conversation. Monday night, Megan told me that he had said good-bye to her and her sisters at ICU, and as they were leaving in tears, he added, “Damn, I’m going to be so embarrassed if I don’t die tonight.”

Bingo.

Yeats wrote in his poem “Vacillation” that he tested “everything his [own] hands [had] wrought” according to whether or not it was “suited for such men as come/ Proud, open-eyed, and laughing to the tomb.”

Pat Conroy was such a man.

May he rest in peace and the family he has left behind thrive.

The Mother of Beauty

I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”

Petronius, The Satyricon.

From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What’s the meaning of all song?
“Let all things pass away.”

Yeats “Vacillation”

 

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

shapeimage_2

In the catalogue of alienations we Late Empire citizens suffer – estrangement from nature, God, our neighbors, ourselves – our estrangement from death is often omitted. We no longer encounter death on a daily basis. Most of us don’t raise chickens to wring their necks, pluck their feathers, excise their entrails. When our loved ones die, we no longer remove their clothes, wash their corpses, and dress them for one last family photo in the parlor.

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Of course, our lack of exposure to death makes it much easier to lock it away down deep in the cellar of our consciousness, which might not be such a bad thing given that nothing’s more life negating than death obsession. On the other hand, our isolation from the cold hard facts our ancestors dealt with – butchering animals, infant mortality, etc. – might have contributed to a delusion many seem to suffer, i.e death is unnatural.

A few years ago, an acquaintance’s father, a man approaching ninety, was lying comatose in a hospital. Each day, on Facebook this acquaintance updated his father’s situation, which, not surprisingly, was rather uneventful – the opening and closing of an eye, a sense from a nurse that the old man experienced discomfort when bathed. My acquaintance and visitors read the Bible to him aloud as they sat and prayed for a miracle. This acquaintance battled his father’s physicians who wanted to transfer him to hospice care while the son perceived opening an eye as a harbinger of “the complete recovery” for which he so ardently prayed.

Most of the Facebook commentators were essentially enablers writing messages like “Sounds very encouraging!!! The doctors could be totally wrong……the body can heal in ways that only God knows” or “That’s great. God is in controll” (sic) or “God is the ultimate physician:-).”

A contempt for science and doctors ran through those Facebook posts, and the commentary that followed. No wonder people don’t believe in evolution or global warming if they believe a comatose man dying of an infection brought on my the removal of a cancerous lung tumor could very well attain a complete recovery and enter robustly into his ninth decade.

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

However, much more horrible than death would be eternal life in an ever aging husk of a body. Not only did the Sibyl at Cumae consider it a drag (see above), but we also have corroborating evidence from Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” When a trio of churls accost an ancient man and ask him why he still has the gall to remain alive, he replies,

Not even Death, alas! my life will take;
Thus restless I my wretched way must make,
And on the ground, which is my mother’s gate,
I knock with my staff early, aye, and late,
And cry: ‘O my dear mother, let me in!
Lo, how I’m wasted, flesh and blood and skin!
Alas! When shall my bones come to their rest?

Why, I wonder, would such devout Christians want to forestall the eternity of bliss that awaited that good man? And the father was a good man, a great provider devoted to his family and his God.

The answer, of course, is love.  Most of us love our parents.  We don’t want them to go.  I miss my own father’s sardonic witticisms, my mother’s hoarse cackle of a laugh. My acquaintance devotedly loved his father and didn’t want to think of living life without him.

Is that so wrong?

[cue Evangelical voice]: Let us turn to Ecclesiastes 3:1-4.

To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted . . .

Like I said, our aged loved ones’ passing is melancholy, and we miss them when they’re gone. I have had a couple of dreams about my mother recently, and I awake missing her. Nevertheless, her time had come, and she was rather fortunate given that she didn’t have suffer for long the feebleness that Larkin descries in “The Old Fools.”

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t) it’s
strange: Why aren’t they screaming?

Yep, there are worse things than death.

Fat Tuesday

history1It’s Fat Tuesday in the Protestant State of South Carolina, so not much is going on carnivalwise except on Folly Beach, which celebrates Fat/Shrove Tuesday not in the context of the Christian calendar but as another excuse to lure consumers onto the island so they can get rip-roaring drunk. This lack of a Catholic context is underscored by Folly’s postponing its big celebration — Folly Gras — until the more pecuniarily advantageous weekend, this Saturday, the fourth day of Lent.

The origins of Carnival are obscure; some anthropologists tie the festivities to the ancient Italian tradition of Bacchanalia (see Livy for some hyper-ventilated descriptions of the festivities) while others dismiss the connection as spurious. Etymologically, most agree that carne — meat — comprises to the root for the celebration, which features feasting and in some cases nudity — chili con carne and carnal knowledge.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

Sophie Tucker

Sophie Tucker

The ancient celebration of Bacchanalia embraced — if Livy can be believed — a leveling of the social playing field, allowing plebeians to run free through the streets mixing with their so-called social superiors, and Carnival’s tendency for disguise might be akin to this earlier democratization of social hierarchy. Who is that behind that elaborate mask, Jeb Bush or the Leatherman, Queen Victoria or Sophie Tucker?

Although I’m not Catholic nor have given up anything for Lent since the ’60’s, I like the counterbalancing of Carnival and Lent as mythic antitheses — each in its way helping us to come to terms with death and therefore life.

Between extremities

Man runs his course;

A brand, or flaming breath.

Comes to destroy

All those antinomies

Of day and night;

The body calls it death,

The heart remorse.

But if these be right

What is joy?

 Yeats “Vacillation”

So, on that bright note, I’m headed down to Center Street to see what’s going down.  Who knows, maybe the Leatherman will show up.

The Leatherman

The Leatherman

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