Friday, March 13, 2009

`Knock Me Sideways'

“That feeling of being chosen by the language, I think, is a common property of all readers and writers of poetry: it’s the invasion of a body snatcher. But the takeover makes you more individual, not less.”

That’s Clive James in his introduction to Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958-2008. Poems with even one “strong line” – James’ phrase – claim you for a lifetime. “Prufrock” did that and chunks of “Song of Myself,” much Hopkins and poems or lines by Shakespeare, Auden, Tate, Berryman and Karl Shapiro – an unlikely personal anthology. James says of Louis Macneice’s “The Sunlight on the Garden”: “I can still recite [it] from memory, having learned it on the first day I saw it.” I didn’t know the poem:

“The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

“Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

“The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

“And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.”

I’m grateful to James for having introduced me to so musical and sweetly sad a poem, written when MacNeice was 30 years old. The echo of Antony’s dying words brings back Cleopatra’s reply:

“No, let me speak; and let me rail so high,
That the false housewife Fortune break her wheel,
Provoked by my offence.”

I haven’t tried to memorize a poem in many years but I’ll make the effort with “Sunlight.” Go here, scroll down and click on the link to a recording of MacNeice reading the poem. I like the idea of the gratuitous discipline of memorization. Recalling his early years as a poet in Australia, James says of poems by Auden and MacNeice:

“The impact of these brief pieces was like a vision of love, and still is: even now, there are individual lyric poems, sometimes by people I have never previously heard of, that knock me sideways.”


Peter said...

Here's a nice little comment from Wyatt Mason about memorizing poems:

I have a few of Larkin's poems memorized (including "This Be the Verse," which is hard not to memorize). I'm rather pleased with myself for memorizing the opening of Richard III; I heard once that Lincoln had done the same.

R. T. said...

Most of my Introduction to Literature students at the university where I teach are usually inclined to resist poetry when we come up against in the syllabus, but when I begin the poetry portion of the course with Larkin's "This Be The Verse," it tends to open their minds to the down-to-earth possibilities of poetry and lets them set aside their preconceived, erroneous notions about incomprehensibility and irrelevance.