Wednesday, June 05, 2013

`An Obsolete Skill'

Thanks to Miss Clymer, my eighth-grade English teacher who also taught me Latin, I greet the month of June each year with the words of James Russell Lowell: 

“And what is so rare as a day in June?
  Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
  And over it softly her warm ear lays.” 

To this day, I’ve never read all of “The Vision of Sir Launfal” and have no immediate plans to correct the omission, but I love those lines, especially the musical metaphor in lines three and four. I can’t quote another word by Lowell but that passage and its associations have consoled me for almost half a century. They’re as much a part of June as sunshine and Bloomsday. My sons know song lyrics and doggerel but no poems. That’s my doing, in part, but also the school’s, given the state of American public education. Kids no longer memorize multiplication tables let alone nineteenth-century verse. Andrew Hamilton writes in “On Remembering Poems”:     

“Few nowadays commit poems to memory, having access to the Internet and Google. I find I have an obsolete skill, like carriage-making or blacksmithing.” 

My memory isn’t notably acquisitive. Most of the poems I know by heart, or almost by heart, I worked to remember. With song lyrics it’s easy. I have a reliable stock of Dylan, Lennon/McCartney and Cole Porter at hand. The music is the glue. With poems, I tend to retain scraps, some of them dubious, bits of Eliot and Milton that impressed me about the same time I was committing Lowell to memory. That’s another consideration – a young memory is likelier to acquire and retain than an old one. A few years later, in high school, I was much taken by Allen Tate, and almost without trying, solely because of the unlikely beauty of its first line, I memorized “Sonnet at Christmas II.” Almost fifteen years ago, in Nova Scotia, one day before our wedding, I was challenged at dinner by my wife’s uncle to recite an appropriate poem. Flustered, I stammered through Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. About the only poet I first read seriously later in life whose words stick with me almost effortlessly are Philip Larkin’s. Martin Amis has referred to Larkin’s “frictionless memorability.” Thus: 

“Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.” 

Hamilton’s gift for retaining poems far exceeds my own. Significantly, one poem reminds him of another, implying not just passive acquisition but long contemplation. Troublingly, some of my favorite poems – many by Winters and Bowers, for instance -- are absent from my memory or recalled only in phrases. Had I read them with comparable devotion when young, I suspect they would be as familiar as my Social Security number, reconfirming Shaw’s chestnut about youth being wasted on the young. How I wish my taste had been better in my youth, and that, as Yeats says in a poem cited by Hamilton,  I had planned more assiduously to stock “an old man’s eagle mind.”

1 comment:

Jonathan Chant said...

Yes, Dylan, Lennon and McCartney do stick without really trying.

I can remember passages of novels from my youth that haunt me to this day but I can't for the life of me remember the titles or authors who wrote them.