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Midnight–not a sound from the pavement.

February 18, 2009

Jenna Krajeski’s article posted today on the New Yorker’s Book Bench reminded me of another article, written by Wyatt Mason for Harpers, that I read nearly a month ago. Humorously, the article laments the swiftly fading memory of the members of contemporary society.

Mason’s remedy for the forgetfulness of our culture? Memorizing poetry.

While in high school, my father put Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” to memory and can, to this day, recite it on command; at different points in my high school education I was compelled to memorize passages from Shakespeare that have stuck with me–it seems that Macbeth’s thoughts on tomorrow are still creeping along at this petty pace, even today; and the boy of The History Boys seem to have memorized the entire work of a generation of British poets.

All that to say that there may be something to this memorizing poetry business.

Along with Alan Bennett (author of The History Boys), Tobias Wolff–in his roundabout way–speaks of the power of the memorization of poetry in his masterful short story, “Bullet in the Brain,” writing:

He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so that he could give himself the shivers at will–not “Silent, upon a peak in Darien,” or ”My God, I heard this day,” or “All my pretty ones? Did you say all? 0 hell-kite! All?” None of these did he remember; not one. (emphasis mine)

Poetry, indeed, has the power to give the reader “the shivers at will.” For the young reader, much of the power of poetry is difficult to understand because many, in their youth, have yet to experience “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” (Wordsworth) that accompanies most great poetry. Despite the difficulty, reading poetry remains valuable because when the youth is confronted with the powerful emotion later in life he or she will have already encountered it through the poet.

I now realize I have been rambling on and on about the power of poetry so I will stop that, but not before issuing a challenge.
In the next week, why don’t you memorize a poem? How hard could it be?

Mason suggests “A Coat” by W.B. Yeats:

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

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