20 January 2009

By Heart

About a month ago, I memorized John Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV," the one that starts, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God. . ." You can find the full poem here. It is a violently dramatic poem that uses sexual imagery to convey the speaker's painful, conflicted relationship with God.

The poem grabbed me when I viewed John Adams' opera "Dr. Atomic," about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. The first act ends with Oppenheimer alone on the night before the world's first atomic bomb test, and he sings this fantastically dramatic aria. The text is "Holy Sonnet XIV."

This is the first poem I have memorized in a while, perhaps a year. The last one I "got by heart" was "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas. That one came as a kind of dare or challenge, since Jon W. had declared at one of our reading parties that he had tried to memorize that poem, and failed, as there is so much repeated imagery and language from stanza to stanza in the poem. The moment the words left his mouth, I knew I had to memorize that poem.

Jon was right about the subtle changes in the repeated language in the poem, though. Its six nine-line stanzas all follow the same pattern of irregularly long or short lines, with the logic of the relation of the lines the same in each, also. Where the second stanza has "In the sun that is young once only," stanza five echoes, "In the sun born over and over" and the last stanza shifts to "In the moon that is always rising." It gets far more subtle and complicated than that when such repetitions and changes come in many lines, and the poem becomes a tapestry of imagery about the change of seasons and of the seasons of a life.

That was a fun one to memorize, I have to say.

I first started memorizing poems in my later days of college. I took a Shakespeare class where the professor, Elihu Pearlman, offered a strange challenge to his students. Instead of taking his rather tough final exam, any student could choose to opt out by performing a particular feat of memorization. If you memorized John Milton's "Lycidas" and presented it one-on-one to the prof. in his office, you did not have to take the final exam.

I started memorizing the poem, but did not really take the intriguing challenge seriously. At 193 lines, "Lycidas" is somewhat daunting. I memorized the first three sections of the poem, about 36 lines, and took the exam.

But after I graduated, I remembered Professor Pearlman's challenge. So I took up "Lycidas" again, working on it day after day, going through the lines in the car, in the bathroom, before I went to sleep, all throughout the day. And I finally got it all down.

"Lycidas" is an intricate and beautiful poem by John Milton, whom Elihu Pearlman puckishly referred to as "the second-best poet in the English language." In it, Milton reinvents a classical form, the Pastoral Elegy. Milton is ostensibly mourning the death by drowning of his Cambridge classmate, Edward King. But he uses the poem as a platform to severely criticize "our corrupted Clergy, then in their height," as the poem's extended headnote has it.

Typical with Milton, the poem is a wild mixture of classical and Christian, with references just exploding out the seams. He throws in Greek gods next to Christian saints, with the center of the piece a funeral procession whose riot of figures reminds me of Fellini's outrageous ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma. Saint Peter shakes "his Miter'd locks" and bellows like a bull while "Camus, reverend Sire," a personification of the river Cam, that runs through Milton's Cambridge, goes "footing slow," an ancient, plodding, seemingly senile figure.

Memorizing this complex poem was a deep experience for me. I found that, in order to properly memorize the poem, I had to understand the subtleties of language and have at least a footnote or annotation's understanding of the dizzying array of references Milton threw in.

Working on "Lycidas" this way, it was astonishing how deeply the process took me into the poem. I learned things about meanings and relationships and sheer grammar in the poem that I could not have done from just deep analysis.

This was the start of a whole new era of memorization for me.

Since then, I have memorized dozens of poems, and I always find the process enlightening and exciting. Most of my memorization projects are much shorter than "Lycidas." They are usually somewhere between sonnet-sized and maybe 60 lines or so. I have tackled a few long ones, though. Once, I memorized Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey."

Memorizing poems takes me, in a strange way, inside the head of the poet who composed them. I have to understand the poem and its intricacies at a fairly subtle level, and I always feel like I am somehow being possessed by Milton, or Robert Frost, or Wordsworth.

In a future blog entry, I'll talk more about the process itself. Yes, I have a lot to say on this subject!

1 comment:

  1. Wasn't in a Shakespeare course. Was in either history of poetry in English or in Renaissance literature. But I'm glad that you were initiated into memorizing, which is, as you note, the best way to genuinely understand poetry. ep

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