A few years ago I wrote this piece on memorising poetry. For World Poetry Day, I share it here in the hope it will encourage you to learn a poem by heart, if you don’t do so as a matter of course. I still memorise poems and regularly revisit those I haven’t turned over in my mind for a while. I’d be happy to hear from any reader who has recently memorised a poem – tell me what it is and what prompted you to learn it by heart.
After a lovely four day Easter break in a chateau in the middle of nowhere 50 minutes north-west of Lyon, we returned to work this morning. A beautiful day, the first of the year with the office window open, allowing the song of the birds and the roar of the Arve at the bottom of the field to come in.
So I was glad to hear from Paul, quoting an essay by Jim Holt in the New York Times, on learning poetry. Always good to hear of people who learn poetry by heart; I know of one or two friends who do this, and there may be others. I suspect there are many who commit things to heart but never find an audience receptive enough to let them recite.
We seem to have moved from an oral culture to a written one, perhaps losing the habit of listening to people recite poetry – it seems difficult for many, partly because they try to understand poems in a way they wouldn’t try to understand a painting. They might look at a painting and take it in at some level or other without asking what that patch of colour ‘means’, or that brush-stroke, yet they can trip over themselves trying to unpack a line from a poem. And miss the poem. And the reciter, unused to an audience, can falter over lines which flow faultlessly in silent or solitary recitation.
Jim Holt says he knows about a hundred poems. Like him, I know quite a few, though I doubt it adds up to a hundred, though I am more concerned about the hundreds I don’t know than the dozens I do. Holt suggests that some people learn easily, as if by osmosis, whereas others, like himself, have to work at it. For me it’s a messy mix; the short ones, or those with rhymes or obvious rhythms, aren’t necessarily easier to learn. Some I have to build in my mind in a patiently sedimentary way, others I swallow in a couple of bouts of re-reading start to finish, such as 34 lines from Victor Hugo’s The End of Satan (hell not as fire but freeze, arctic blasts of nothingness), which just seemed to imprint themselves on my memory. Cavafy’s Ithaca was the same.
Unlike Holt, I don’t learn a few lines a day as I need to hook them together to create the whole. So I usually learn a whole poem, or two, in one sitting, which limits how many I learn because I need a sense of mental space and time to take in a whole poem. Then I’ll re-read and re-cite, revisiting from time to time, to fix things in the long term memory bank.
It’s a wonderful feeling when the poem is so firmly in your heart that it recites itself; many people who have barely learned a line of poetry know this feeling from their capacity to sing a song. And sometimes you forget the poem, but not the lines; that is, you forget about the poem but when you recall its existence, you find the lines are still there, waiting to be heard. After twenty years buried, this bursts one day into my consciousness, prompted by a sight of amber, recalling “light-filled”:
Holt mentions his “mental treasury”, which is how I see the mind, though Lee Siegel refers to it just as eloquently as the “home entertainment centre”. As a girl, I wanted mine to be full of gems I could carry everywhere, weightlessly, like pulling a beloved book out of a saddle bag. Gumilyov describes how his readers “carry my books in their saddle-bags, leave them behind on a sinking ship; When bullets whistle around, when waves split the ship’s side, I teach them to be unafraid”. I wanted to go a step further, and have a whole hefty anthology light in my mind, safe from salty soaking; so that on any grey day, one can fly to a breath-catching dawn on an Adriatic cliff, or echo a breath-catching dawn right where you are. On a return flight from Greece, cleaving the Adriatic coast, I was able to pull this up and send it with a kiss back to its source:
This unimportant morning; something goes singing
Where the capes turn over on their sides
And the warm Adriatic rides her blue and sun washing
At the edge of the world and its brilliant cliffs.
Day rings in the higher air, pure with cicadas
And slowing like a pulse to smoke from farms
Extinguished in the exhausted earth,
Unclenching like a fist and going.
Trees cool, fume, pour and over-flowing
Unstretch the feathers of birds and shake carpets
From windows; brush with dew the up and doing
And young lovers now their little resurrections make.
And now lightly to kiss all whom sleep stitched up
And wake, my darling, wake! The impatient
Boatman has been waiting under the house,
His long oars folded up like wings in waiting on a darkling lake.
Holt recites poems to himself when he is jogging along the Hudson River, but I think that would be hard as your breathing, paced to the pounding of feet or the gasping of an oxygen-grasping heart, would struggle to pace the poem. But just about anywhere else is game: supermarket check-out, train ride, on the bus. Walking, of course. Concert, to the splendid accompaniment of an entire orchestra. I once learned a page of poems in a concert hall, though I realised I wasn’t doing the music justice, so didn’t do it again (if you try this trick, make sure the poem fits on one side of a sheet of paper, so you don’t bother your neighbours by turning the sheet over):
The best time to learn is the magic hour of morning, on the balcony. I am now coming to the end of one batch – about 15 pages – and have lined up the next to learn. More extracts of Pope’s Iliad, a few verses of Ted Hughes’ Tales of Ovid, which describes antediluvian chaos as “a huge agglomeration of upset”, and his Birthday Letters, as well as a sparkling selection I have been setting aside. For the first time, I would also like to tackle passages of prose. That could prove more challenging, but surely worthwhile for the joy of being able to random access a description of the only dog I regret I never met (but then, his owner is the only dead man with whom I have ever fallen in love). Meet Barone, as Carlo Levi portrays him in Christ Stopped at Eboli:
“His face was handsome, like that of a Chinese dragon, terrifying in his moments of anger or when he bared his teeth, but with round, almost human hazel eyes that followed my movements without his even turning his head. His expression ranged from tenderness to independence to a certain childish malice. His hair hung down almost to the ground, soft, curly and shiny as silk; his tail, which he carried curved and waving in the air like the plume of an Oriental warrior, was as thick as that of a fox. He was a gay, free, wild creature, affectionate without servility and obedient without forfeiting his liberty, a sort of hobgoblin or familiar spirit, good-natured but elusive. He jumped rather than walked, leaping from one point to another, his ears and skin twitching. He chased butterflies and birds, frightened the goats, picked fights with cats and dogs, and ran all alone through the fields looking up at the clouds, always on the alert, sniffing the air as if he were following the fluttering thread of some innocent supernatural thought, the bounding incarnation of some woodland sprite.”
Maybe one day I will be able to recite it and you will indulge me; but if I ever learn the whole of The Pied Piper of Hamlin, who will have patience to hear?
Photo credits: amber heart – JacekAbramowicz, pixabay.com; roses – Alina Sofia, unsplash.com; sea and cliffs – Leeroy, stocksnap.io