Saturday, November 06, 2010

`How Much Does Memorability Matter?'

“Wallace Stevens’s poetry is more beautiful, and Robert Frost’s often more powerful, than Eliot’s, but the latter’s, once read, refuses to leave the mind. How much does memorability matter in literature? A vast deal, I suspect, and in poetry above all. And here, in the realm of the memorable, Eliot has left a greater literary residue than any other poet of the 20th century.”

You can argue with Joseph Epstein’s assessment of the last century’s poets (Eliot’s work, for this reader, is more beautiful than Stevens’ and more powerful than Frost’s) but his point about memorability is critical to a discussion of literary worth. The good, if not always the best, persists, as does some of the less good. Epstein’s observation is personally noteworthy because Eliot was the first “grown-up” poet I resolved to memorize.

Around the time of his death in January 1965, I bought paperback copies of Selected Poems and Four Quartets. The latter remained hermetically sealed for years but I set out committing to memory chunks of “Prufrock,” “Preludes” and “The Hollow Men.” Pieces of “The Waste Land” followed naturally, after repeated readings. The motive was pleasure. I liked saying the words to myself, silently, especially when walking to and from school or in the woods. Later I added bits of Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Larkin and Tate. My effort, probably secret (I don’t remember reciting to anyone), was still bolstered by teachers in mid-sixties when we were expected to remember lines by Shakespeare, Emerson and Longfellow. Such an addition to the curriculum today would be judged child abuse.

On Friday in the school library I noticed on the shelf a welcomingly fat volume in green library binding – Favorite Poems Old and New, edited by Helen Ferris and published by Doubleday in 1957, the year I entered kindergarten. After more than half a century the book is stained and creased, and its five hundred ninety-eight pages have the well-thumbed softness of a beloved volume. How pleasing to see the number of poems I know by heart at least in part – Poe’s “The Bells,” Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane,” Sandburg’s “Fog,” Emerson’s “The Humble-Bee,” Lewis Carroll’s “The Lobster Quadrille” and, among others, Eliot’s “The Rum Tum Tugger.” Except for the Poe, I don’t remember trying to memorize any of these poems. Like pop songs and commercial jingles, they entered memory, sometimes willingly, for good.

Here’s one new to me I want to memorize for my kids and students, by Nabokov’s friend at Cornell, Morris Bishop, “Song of the Pop-Bottlers”:

“Pop bottles, pop-bottles
in pop shops;
The pop-bottles Pop bottles
Poor Pop drops

“When Pop drops pop-bottles
Pop-bottles plop!
Pop-bottle-tops topple!
Pop mops slop!

“Stop! Pop'll drop bottle!
Stop, Pop stop!
When Pop bottles pop-bottles,
Pop-bottles pop!”


Mary McC said...

Have you ever thought about putting together a new volume of poetry for kids? Most of the ones I've found have either a bunch of not so good "kids" poems or terrible illustrations. The MET put something out a number of years ago that was ok. Perhaps it is time for a new one?

Cynthia Haven said...

Brodsky made us memorize hundreds of lines, and we were much the better for it. (We were a bit too old to claim child abuse.)

As for memorability, see if you can get this little 8-line miracle out of your head. William Jay Smith's "Note on a Vanity Dresser":

The yes-man in the mirror now says no,
No longer will I answer you with lies.
The light descends like snow,so when the snow-
man melts, you will know him by his eyes.

The yes-man in the mirror now says no.
Says no. No double negative of pity
Will save you now from what I know you know:
These are your eyes, the cinders of your city.

Anderson said...

Thinking about favorite Eliot and Stevens lines, I finally get around to noticing that Eliot's turn to drama should've been no surprise. He is a finer dramatic poet than a lyrical one -- dramatic like Browning's dramatic. My favorite Eliot to say aloud has a wonderful stagey, persona-like quality that Stevens generally does not.

What one loves with Stevens is his elegance, his seeming whimsical (and sometimes descending into whimsy), but usually turning out to have chosen his strange titles or images with great precision. The first thing to come to mind is the "silence of a rat come out to see" in "The Plain Sense of Things."