I’m going to try memorizing a few poems this month. As someone with a bachelor’s degree in literature, you might expect me to be able to whip out a few stanzas of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” without breaking a sweat, but alas, my mental database of poetry has been largely over-written by pop culture trivia. As a result, I am, at best, only able to recite a single line of some poem or another. If that line is: “like a patient etherized upon a table” (from Eliot’s “Prufrock”), it will merely confuse the audience. If my mind lands on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, odds are I won’t remember to say that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” but, rather, I’ll land on “alcohol and cock and endless balls,” which is funnier, but unnecessarily provocative when taken out of context, and I may be asked to leave the party. Just last night I was desperately trying to recall the opening stanza from one of my favorite poems – “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens – but I couldn’t get past the first line. In fact, upon checking online, I had only conjured up a combination of bits from the first and fourth line. It made sense grammatically, but it wasn’t the line Stevens wrote, and I feel a need to get it right. Poetry matters.
I reached the pinnacle of my recitation prowess during my freshman year in college. It was the first day of my first college literature class and the professor had gone off on a tangent about pantheism. I’m a sucker for intellectual tangents, so I was listening closely to what he said and, faced with a room full of frightened freshman, he needed to do most of the talking himself. He looked to the ceiling and wondered aloud about that line by Coleridge, something about organic harps. His words triggered a memory from a high school class in which I had read Coleridge’s poem “The Eolian Harp” and, inexplicably, the words came to my mind. Even more inexplicably, I opened my mouth and began reciting them:
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
I didn’t speak loudly for fear that I would get the words wrong, but I spoke above a whisper. To this day, it’s the only complete stanza of poetry I’ve been able to recall at will, no doubt because that professor, who went on to become my mentor, said, “Yes, that’s it!” and looked at me. His eyes, and smile, made it clear he thought there might be something to this kid.
Despite that auspicious beginning to my Literature degree, my database of poetry is now limited to song lyrics. I have whole albums of metal lyrics hard-coded into my brain. Song lyrics are a bit easier because you’ve got the melody to help frame it up. Knowing the lyrics is important, because I like to sing along and pretend I’m the lead vocalist of a metal band, like Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden. In fact, Maiden’s music helped me retain the words to another stanza from Coleridge. They recorded a paraphrased version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1984, and I love to sing along with the classic lines:
Water, water every where
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
It’s memorable because of the archaic grammar. Even with grammatical quirks, memorizing lyrics is getting more difficult as the years go by. While I’ve got long passages of Exodus (the thrash band) lyrics ready to go at a moment’s notice, I have been unable to remember the words to the chorus of their 2014 sing-along classic “Blood In, Blood Out.” When I saw them perform on that tour, I tripped over my tongue trying to shout along with lead singer Zetro Souza. It was fun, but frustrating. That’s one of the reasons I need to work on memorizing verse.
Besides exercising my powers of recall, I also want to commit some poems to memory because poetry is important to me, and I want to rediscover some of it, like listening to an favorite old Exodus record. I’ve been looking for distractions from my workplace woes lately, but I think poetry can also offer a bit of understanding. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of metal documentaries and interviews with metal musicians as a way to think deeply on a topic I love. My recent reunion with dear friends from college got me thinking that poetry also used to serve that purpose. I enjoy thinking deeply on the work of some poets. I want those insights that come from a carefully turned phrase or the use of a word that can be interpreted in different ways. I look for the same qualities in poems and song lyrics: the more thought-provoking the better. There’s gold in them thar hills if you’re willing to dig for it. As William Carlos Williams said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Poetry matters.
I won’t be committing the epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to memory. I’ll stick with some shorter works. As I told my son last night, when I studied Wallace Stevens’ work as my senior thesis, I focused on his shorter pieces, going so far as to declare that his longer poems were failures. While I can defend that argument, the truth is, I like the shorter ones because they are short and I am lazy. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is just about the right length for what I’ve got in mind. Phrases from that poem have been “turning in the widening gyre” of my thoughts of late. There’s something very familiar about those notions that the “centre cannot hold” and “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”, sorry to say. Not to mention that “rough beast” that “slouches toward Bethlehem.” That’s some dark stuff, worthy of a heavy metal song.
While I don’t plan to do any dramatic recitations while standing by my grill at backyard parties, if I do manage to memorize a few classic, if brief, poems, I might drop a stanza or two in a meeting. I, honestly, just remembered that when I was a younger man, twenty-plus years ago, I would hand out copies of a poem at the beginning of a monthly management team meeting along with the agenda. Maybe it’s the poetry I’ve been missing at work. Or maybe I just need to play Exodus’ “Blood In, Blood Out” video on the smartboard before the LT23 meeting gets started. Either way, it would be interesting.