For Mnemosyne

I equate it to being happily married your whole life to your middle-school sweetheart: My first favorite poem is still one of my best beloved. I was around five when I had read enough poetry to declare a favorite—my parents were devoted bookish people and provided me with all the good children’s books of the late ’60s and early ’70s. A Child’s Garden of Verses was one, and the poem I attached myself to was “Happy Thought:”

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

My love wasn’t based on any artistic merit; it was all about the message, and it still is. Corny, sure, but if there’s any aspect of my five-year-old self I’m glad I’ve carried with me for the past 40-odd years, it’s that infatuation with the world’s multiplicity of marvels. Small wonder I’m such a sucker for the wunderkammer of the internet. They are the only written lines I’ve ever considered as a tattoo.

The other reason I appreciated it was that even at age five, I could memorize it. I’ve always been geeky about memorization, and practiced it long before anyone ever suggested it was good for me. I can still remember teaching myself Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” when I was around 10, and to this day it’s hardwired into my brain like my childhood phone number and the first side of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As a kid I learned all the Lewis Carroll poems by heart, and Elizabeth Coatsworth’s “Swift Things Are Beautiful,” a bunch of Edward Lear and Ogden Nash, Ted Hughes’ “Roger the Dog” (“Asleep he wheezes at his ease./He only wakes to scratch his fleas.”), “Richard Cory” and “The Highwayman”—probably not all the way through, but enough to satisfy my love of melodrama and meter.

At the beginning of this month—April is National Poetry Month, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention—guest blogger Michael Lista wrote a piece in The Afterword about the beauty of memorization, and why the means of transmittal (ebook, paper, clay tablet) matter so much less than what’s being transmitted.

Here’s why a poem is different than any other art form: they’re their own containers. The goliath of time can smash Michelangelo’s “David”; the city housing Picasso’s “Guernica” can be bombed; but a poem will live as long as the heart to which it is committed. And the good ones can’t help but be memorized.

And he links to David Barber’s excellent essay Does Memory Have a Future?, reprinted in Poetry Daily. Barber makes a point for literary cultural memory being deeply encoded in poetry, invoking mother of the muses Mnemosyne, the concept of the Memory Palace, and quoting one of my favorite men of letters, Robert Pinsky:

Poetry is among other things a technology for remembering. Like the written alphabet and the printing press and the digital computer, it is an invention to help and extend memory…. Rhymes and emphatic rhythms help us to memorize. Verse in this way is a technology for memory, using the sounds of language, created by a human body, as writing uses marks.

In The Afterword, Lista also offers up a challenge: Memorize a poem this month. April is three-quarters gone now, but there’s still time. I seem to be outing myself as secretly old-fashioned lately, but I do think committing a poem to heart is the best way to bond with it, to draw a straight line between its essence and the part of you that responds to literature intuitively. As he puts it, “Because here’s the magic in memorizing a poem: it turns itself into your body. Yeats writes it, and somewhere in your brain a neighbourhood of neurons line up into ‘Sailing to Byzantium.'” I’m going to try it, see if I can make those neurons line up before the month is out. Somewhere in between Robert Louis Stevenson and William Butler Yeats there’s a poem waiting to live on in my memory, and I will report back when I find it. Because as Barber points out,

The way I see it, the revolution in information technology that has made such astonishing gains in taking over what might be called the grunt work of memory has potentially freed up all kinds of room in our minds for newly reclaimed fields of memory to take root and flower. And yes, you guessed it, I happen to see this as a golden opportunity to put poetry and memory back on good speaking terms—again to orchestrate a family reunion, if you will, between the muses and their dear old mom.

(Painting above is “Mnemosyne, Mother of the Muses” by Lord Frederick Leighton.)


7 Comments to For Mnemosyne

  1. Karen Wall's Gravatar Karen Wall
    April 22, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I wish I knew where my copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses went. I’d love to have it.

    I will try to memorize a poem this month, what a great goal. Six weeks ago at my mom’s funeral I recited Emily Dickinson’s “Ample make this bed” from memory (though I had my book as a crutch). I’m so glad I knew it. Now to decide what new poem?

  2. April 22, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    We got my daughter a lovely copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses with illustrations by Tasha Tudor. It really is one of the books you have to have! There’s also a really nice series called “Poetry for Young People” that has all kinds of good stuff.

    I think I’ll try to memorize a poem too–what a great idea. It’s really true, isn’t it, about how a memorized poem becomes a sort of part of you. I can still rattle of large sections of Poe’s “The Raven” (“And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…”), learned way back in childhood, and Emily Dickinson’s “I’m nobody – who are you?” too. I know lots of bits and pieces now, accumulated through years of teaching, but that’s not the same as really internalizing one–there’s an intimacy with the language that comes from memorization.

    But which one? We should all report back when we’ve chosen and learned ours.

  3. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    April 22, 2010 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Why not “Sailing to Byzantium”? I learned it years ago, though I think I have misplaced a line or so. “That is no country for old men; the young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees / (Those dying generations) at their song” — what a great poem. And I liked “Richard Cory” and “The Highwayman” too. Bess, the landlord’s daughter!

    Once you have memorized a poem you can always take it out and turn it over; remind yourself what there is in it, or find something new. Yes, I will engage to learn a new poem before the month is out.

  4. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    April 23, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    So can I! I was supposed to be downstairs in the cultural hall learning Panamanian folk dancing, instead I was upstairs in the library reading and memorizing Poe. I was 12, with two left feet, no rhythm and a great vocabulary.

  5. lynn's Gravatar lynn
    April 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I have such a vivid memory of my 3rd grade teacher having an assignment where we were to find a poem, memorize it, and then recite it to the class. I went to the library and found one I liked in a big book full of poems. When it was my turn, the teacher told me it was lovely and asked me who wrote it. I told her it was by “anonymous,” and I remember wondering why she laughed.

  6. Miriam's Gravatar Miriam
    April 26, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I memorized was Jabberwocky when I was about 11. I wrote it out and taped it on the slant above my bed. Then in 7th grade there was a poetry recitation contest. I don’t remember anymore whether you had to sign-up for it, or if everyone had to participate, but regardless, I memorized and recited Tennyson’s “Break, break, break.” I still remember standing in my aunt’s backyard while she and my dad worked me through the poem. And then the pleasure I took from presenting it front of my class (who bore me no love and yet I remember responding positively to my recitation). I learned a lot about meter and rhythm in the process. My dad, who was a preacher’s kid, and comes from a long line of teachers and preachers can still pull an incredible number of poems up at will.

    I didn’t clue in that April was poetry month until I read this blog post, but that explains the poems from Knopf that arrive in my mailbox each day. I’m really enjoying them. I should memorize some.

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