The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Speak, Memory, Vladmir Nabokov (1947)
Over centuries there have been many claims for "eternal" words, from the tender sonnet 18 to a blaring advertisement for a Steven King novel. We may smile when Shakespeare vows that "in eternal lines to time thou grow'st," confident in our material sense of both Shakespeare's long time in death and of our language's long drift from his diction and figure. Further, we know more now and can through analysis shatter the sonnet to sherds on the debris field of Ur. Yet few of us know the poem so that we may, as James Merrill often put it, "say the poem" for no reason but to hear an artifact of the composition of beauty in words. But only when a poet holds a poem in memory can a "brief crack of light" from another age becomes visible.
So much critical energy has been unleased in an effort to demolish the "myth" of poetic expression's power that many poets know the commentary rather than the poem. Assured that knowledge of an author's fit in social history is adequate to judge him, and caving in to the linguist's inability to find security in meaning, we forget an ancient commonplace: poetry is an art whose medium is the modulation of sound in time, whether of word, phrase or line. Poetry is not a treatise or a scientific paper, nor are poetic artifacts akin to either the judgment of heaven or the jeers of a rabble. What does that mean?
Step away from poetry for a minute and listen a moment to music. What academic theory can substitute for hearing a particular symphony? You can learn about sonata allegro form, memorize all its rules, and list forty-seven examples of its use in music as diverse as Mozart and the late Romantics. But if you haven't heard all of those examples, you'll never experience how composers transmuted a rule set into works of art. For one, a purely academic understanding of sonata allegro form won't tell you about its use by Beethoven and Schubert, who never employed its pure form but used it as a foundation for much larger movements of thematic variation and development. Learning the basic musical theory, which should take a moderately intelligent reader about a day, is important to enjoying symphonies built that way, but, whether you just listen or want to compose, you haven't learned the art until you know the repertoire. That takes years. Why should poetry be any different?
The writer turned to poetry late after writing for many years for the theater. At one reading, he found three feet in front of him the late James Merrill. After his twenty minutes reading, he spoke to the late poet, who asked simply: "do you memorize poetry?" The author admitted that he hadn't done that in twenty years. "I'm appalled," Merrill said. He didn't have to say more. He meant that what he'd heard wasn't informed by the art. Over the next year or so, the writer committed to memory poems from dozens of authors ancient and modern, from quatrains and sonnets to dramatic monologues and great odes, and finally, on a dare, most of Hamlet, that miraculous hodgepodge of blank verse and prose poetry.
Something remarkable happened. While it is wonderful to tick off reference and allusion and to elaborate each metaphor, having a poem in memory puts you close to the creative process. Reading aloud may give you the movement and rhythm of a poem. But having a poem in memory puts you inside its architecture. Instead of simply observing method, you begin to hear and feel it, nevermind the joy of knowing a poem well enough to call it up on demand. And regardless of what some academics (and not a few poets) might say, the composition of a poem often proceeds on a feeling of method often in opposition to conscious appreciation of technique. What happens when you go inside another artist's creative method?
One fear stated by poets who avoid memorizing other writers's work (or learning enough to distinguish it from their own) is that "I'll be too influenced; I'll write like that." That may be true for a while, as we may hear an echo of John Coltrane in a young saxophone player. But learning someone else's work calls up questions, such as "how could I do that better?" or, "how could I take that somewhere else?". Both questions arise out of a common sensibility, that we stand on the shoulders of who came before us. This is an often incomprehensible notion to an American -- we believe each generation born afresh. While pleasing to W.C. Williams, a born prosletyzer, the Billy Sunday of poets, such propaganda has placed each poet in the unenviable position of reinventing the wheel. Why should we do that?
If the sciences proceeded on that way, we would still be astonished by the discovery that oxygen is required for wood to burn rather than on the brink of developing fire that does not consume the world in the process. If a marriage proceeded on that notion, partners would be on a perpetual honeymoon of initial discoveries. (Actually, quite a few people do follow that, perhaps why divorce is so common.) If parenting proceeded in that direction, our children would be perpetual infants, throwing food across the kitchen, pulling pots out of cabinets, and messing their underwear. Why should poets want to attain arrested development?
Painters who would never think of creating a representative image could tell you what a Rubens looked like, the differences between theatrical compositions by Poussin and David, and how a range of artists used brushes and materials from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. (Sadly, this too is being dissolved in the acid of the American urge to denude the present of the past.) No jazz player would be tolerated onstage who didn't know the music from its beginnings in New Orleans to the great age of Be Bop and beyond. Why should poets be any different?
It's not difficult to develop a feel for the repertoire in memory. Differences arise as to how. This writer learns between four and eight lines of poetry a day. He reads a whole poem aloud five or six times to get a feeling for meaning, movement, rhythm and sound. Then he takes it line by line on bad days, couplet by couplet on others, and quatrain by quatrain on the best. He starts with the first line, looks at it quickly, turns away and tries to say it, then again. Then he looks to see what it really was. If he got it, he turns away and says it again and turns to look at the next line. Before long, a subway ride, for instance, and one has four, eight or sixteen lines of rhymed or blank verse. Some like to start with short poems. The writer started with Richard Wilbur's "Walking to Sleep," which took a long time. A sonnet might have been a better choice.
When you have it, say it aloud once or twice a day. Hear groups of poems you've memorized in your head, preferably not when driving a car or walking across a busy intersection. And, when you've got them well enough to say without hesitation, start to build a performance that fits. Knowing a poem and spending time with its meaning and intimations, its metaphors and structure, will tell you what to do. Then, for the pleasure, the privilege and the ego, say it to some friends or in front of an audience before you open your own verse for your featured reading.
Tim Murphy, the finance banker/pig farmer gaining well-deserved notice for his poetry in recent days, memorizes everything, not only other people's poems, but his own. The effect in readings is electrifying. As happens in a good performance of music, Murphy appears to be inventing poems as he says them, a neat trick if it happens to be a poem by Shelley, and a delightful introduction to his own stuff.
Memorizing your own poems can also be a revelation -- sometimes a happy one. The poem begins to attain a complete existence, rather than a line-by-line one, and you can better tell if it works, just as you can sometimes tell when a poet you admire and know slips on an easy choice. Even the masters slough it on occasion.
But the liberating sense you get knowing that doesn't happen by reading
about it in a critical essay; learn the repertoire. Musicians do.
Painters do. Dancers do. And, until the fads and fancies of
creative writing programs after World War II, most poets tried to do so