Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Poetry and Love

On my classical list this link was shared: For the Love of Poetry.

I will never forget my father reciting long passages of poetry with evident delight. I was somewhat jealous because his schooling had included memorization of poetry and my schooling was more of the Gradgrind sort:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."
Inspired by my father's example, I did memorize a few poems, but I suppose the major stock I have in my memory is from some of the beautiful prayers I learned as a Catholic convert, as well as many scriptures that have soaked into my heart through a whole lifetime. The words made a framework. They come to mind when I need them.

I like the point the article on poetry makes:
Is rote memorization of poetry such a valuable enterprise? Holt urges us all to learn a few lines a day. He extols the joys and benefits of poetry rendered out loud: So much of the sense becomes clear as you hear the rhythms, there's a physical pleasure in it, and your memory muscles get a workout, thereby postponing senility. But the truth is, one of poetry's great consolations is the theater of the moment when it first meant something to you. The image of that moment in your life fixes that poem in your mind for the rest of your days.

Think of when you first heard "Across The Universe" by the Beatles or David Bowie's "Ground Control to Major Tom." It's a similar process. And even if you can't remember the exact moment, you remember the mood they induced and the way they illuminated your physical surroundings, the time of life you inhabited. That's the way one absorbs music or poetry or even great ideas organically. Then years later, you recall the person you were when the neural receptors first took on that sudden expansion. That's the most effective, most true, mnemonic device, and it doesn't come again. As Wordsworth wrote, "There was a time when meadow, grove and stream/The earth and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparell'd in celestial light." Nothing like this happens if you sit down to learn the Beatles discography with a deliberate acquisitive purpose later in life.

I'm all for learning poetry by rote. Holt and I both underwent the experience first in our school years--he in the U.S., and I in Britain. That's the right age to memorize, prematurely, as if laying down fine bottles of wine for a later time. At that age you absorb the lines without grasping the meaning because you haven't yet lived or felt the feelings in the poems. I.... But generally speaking, memorizing and reciting out loud opened a space in the consciousness, a kind of foreshadowing that soon found its counterpart in reality.
I like the idea that even an adult can memorize a few lines a day. There is a man called Eldon Quick who visits my oldest son's college every year or so. He started memorizing the Iliad about a quarter century ago in an attempt to improve his memory. He now has several books completely memorized and as a former actor, recites them for audiences.

Over at Real Learning the subject came up of how prisoners of war relied on memorized poetry and scripture to ennoble their plight. In accounts of Vietnam prisoners, it was mentioned that those prisoners who had a mental storehouse of poems and songs were counted as treasure. James Stockdale, Ross Perot's VP pick, wrote:

“The person who came into this experiment with reams of already memorized poetry was the bearer of great gifts.”
Here's some ideas for memorizing poetry; here's a post by Cindy at Dominion Family about memorizing poems as a family; and here's a page called For the Love of Poetry that has some definitions of poetry. I am linking to it particularly because I like this line:

I like the implication that there is a latency in poetry which only manifests itself when "a certain kind of attention" is turned upon it.

No comments: