Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Memorizing Poetry

I’m still chuckling at an English major’s delayed reply to me when I teased him about his not memorizing any poetry. At first he claimed he hadn’t memorized any. And then—

The occasion was a big “communications fair” in the largest venue on campus, the McEwan Hall ballroom. Lots of six-foot tables and booths. I was happy and relaxed that day. Happy, because I can really relate to folks in communications. Relaxed, because I already had a job, using my diploma in rehabilitation. So nobody could accuse me of trying to “apple polish” to get employment. I shared a laugh with an advertising executive who told me how the number of job applicants claiming to have worked on the team that made a certain famous TV commercial… was greater than the number of people actually on the team!

I was surprised to find a plain table with two English majors. Probably they were graduate students. Seems they were involved in translating old English parchments into modern English. As you know, people are baffled at trying to read Beowulf or Chaucer. Perhaps I was too extroverted that day when demanding to know whether they, being English majors, had memorized any poetry. “No.” After we talked for a few minutes one man changed his story, and recited some verse to show that he had, in fact, memorized some pieces.

Call me biased, but I don’t think my silly extroversion had thrown him off. I just think that in these modern times there is a lot of embarrassment at memorizing poetry; it’s like admitting you dress up in armor and “have at it” with swords. In my neck of the woods, the Society for Creative Anachronism will meet out of sight of the road, and post a cryptic sign at the turn off.

In our post literate age of instant gratification, why would anyone take the time to memorize? Easy: For the same reason you sing instead of relying on your ipod. The proof is in the pudding: Try memorizing a little one or two-verse poem, and see if you don’t feel some delight. Then go and do likewise with longer poems. I think commuter trains and city buses would be good spots for memorizing.

Me? The greyhound. I was inspired by James Michener’s novel The Drifters, the one with three happy hippies on the cover. A best seller in its day, the novel, judging by an interstitial quote, was about traveling for learning rather than traveling as a vagabond.

Near the end the drifters meet a fellow with a square job, an engineer in a remote jungle. Not having a general education, as he and the drifters have their exciting “meaning of life” conversations, he extracts wisdom by relating everything they talk about to Humphrey Bogart movies. I can relate to his behavior, sad to say, as I didn’t get into university until I was over thirty.

In the engineer’s remote lifestyle, beyond any TV, what “keeps him going” is his ability to recite poems. You may ask: How would a typical Engineer come to know poetry? It turns out his professor would add some marks for every poem memorized. I think the professor was in engineering, because knowing poems sure came in handy for the rest of that man’s life.

I suppose Michener would have memorized poems himself, as have several of my favorite figures such as George Orwell. I’m still chuckling over a fellow intellectual, who’s name I won’t reveal, being jealous at how I could recite so many verses into The Cremation of Sam McGee. (Some day I shall finish memorizing it) So next time we had coffee at little sidewalk table he cheerfully arrived with a number of verses of of Gunga Din freshly memorized. Come to think of it, maybe I too ended up learning a few verses of Gunga Din. If I did, I’ve totally forgotten them now. I quoted to my friend Orwell’s line: “No intellectual likes to think he is an ordinary man.” My friend bristled, “I am not an ordinary man!”

I wonder: Are folks afraid to look elitist if they quote a little Jabberwocky among friends? I don’t get it. I will say this: Knowing poetry has sure enriched my life.

Sean Crawford

My poetry manuscript, mentored by Sheri-D, is due this summer, and I’m having ongoing anguish from trying to serve two masters: poetry and essays. So I may stop posting “poetics of,” or start doing awfully short essays, or just post re-runs. We’ll see.

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