Friday, October 12, 2012

`Clarity, Heavy Rhythms, Strong Rhymes'

Earlier this week while walking across campus I found myself moving, quite unconsciously, to the rhythm of these words:

“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”

As kids, my brother and I worked out a vaudeville routine based on Longfellow’s words, once as familiar to literate (and probably to more than a few illiterate) Americans as the Pledge of Allegiance and the Gettysburg Address. We performed it with little prompting for our grandparents. I don’t remember studying the poem in school or setting out to memorize the lines. We inhaled them, like oxygen. Kingsley Amis writes in the preface to The Faber Popular Reciter, his 1978 anthology that includes “Paul Revere’s Ride”: 

“Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer.” 

Amis collects verse by ninety-five poets and the always prolific Anonymous. Most are English, a few American and Irish, the youngest born in 1888, the same year as Eliot and Ransom, though neither is included. The poems without exception are popular, of the people, written and enjoyed before Modernism and politics nearly annihilated the common reader. Here you’ll find Macaulay’s “Horatius,” Whittier’s “Barbara Fritchie,” Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Henley’s “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.”) and Chesterton’s “Lepanto” – poems written to be enjoyed outside a coterie of readers, poems that cheer, inspire and amuse; in Amis’ words: 

“…poems that sound well and go well when spoken in a declamatory style, a style very far indeed removed from any of those to be found at that (alas!) characteristically twentieth-century occasion, the poetry recital, with all its exhibitionism and sheer bad art.” 

I’ve never attended a poetry reading that was about the poems being recited. Without exception they were about the narcissist reading them, embarrassing affairs by and for the tin-eared. In contrast, most of Amis’ selections could be read enjoyably in private or in public, silently or aloud. By my count, I’ve committed all or parts of twelve poems in the Popular Reciter to memory, all dating from my pre-college years. Some I would prefer to forget – “O Captain! My Captain!” – and some I still recite when walking or driving, such as “Danny Deever”:   

      “For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ’ear the quickstep play,
      The Regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
      Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
      After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!”


Helen Pinkerton said...


Almost all the poems you mention we learned in grade school in Montana in the 1930s, except that I don't recall "Lepanto." May I add John Masefield's "Sea Fever," which we memorized and recited in unison for an audience of parents and other students? I doubt that any of us had ever seen the sea. I think the poem may have had something to do with my later interest in Melville. The "declamatory style" is definitely out these days.

George said...

Every now and then, while cooking a risotto, I time a step to the first stanza--or what I remember as the first stanza--of "Lepanto". Kipling I am less fond of, but once I learned most of "Gunga Din" by heart, in emulation of P.G. Wodehouse's Psmith.

Do you know John Hollander's "Committed to Memory"? It has a good selection of poems that one might learn by heart and many have.