Wednesday evening, in the summer issue of the Sewanee Review, I read a biographical essay about Allen Tate (1899-1979) by Robert Buffington, who is writing a life of the poet-critic. I’ve been reading Tate since I was in high school, and return periodically to his only novel, The Fathers (1936). As a young man, Geoffrey Hill was smitten by Tate’s poetry, in particular “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” the first stanza of which I memorized decades ago. Tate belonged to that extinct species, the Man of Letters. Thursday morning, after driving my youngest son to school, I found myself in rush hour traffic reciting another Tate poem, the second of his “Sonnets at Christmas,” which begins: “Ah, Christ, I love you rings to the wild sky / And I must think a little of the past . . .”
I hadn’t set out to recite it. Presumably, Buffington’s essay released it from memory, but all the linkages were subconscious. It’s the music of the sonnet that gets me, sound more than sense, though the sentiment is moving. (I have a similar relationship with “Kubla Khan.”) I’ve never been certain of Tate’s “rings.” Given the proximity of “wild sky,” they may refer to an astronomer’s ring, “an instrument for measuring the altitude of the sun, consisting of a circle mounted in the plane of the meridian; an armillary circle.” I don’t know, and don’t expect to know, and the OED gives dozens of shades of meaning for “ring.” Tate makes mysterious a banally common word.
On Thursday, thanks to Micah Mattix and Prufrock, I read “What You Learn When You Learn a Poem by Heart” by James Delingpole, who set out to memorize Housman’s XXI from A Shropshire Lad. Delingpole makes a useful observation about the act of memorization, one with which I agree, with qualifications: “. . . to memorise a poem is to inhabit and understand it in a way rarely possible when you just read it.” What I come to understand is the poem’s musical logic, the sense of word choice and arrangement, and where the stresses fall. I’m not certain I “understand” the “Sonnet at Christmas” any more than I understand some of John Donne’s denser “Holy Sonnets” or the early poems of Edgar Bowers, but I love them.
Delingpole’s choice is inspired. For pure musicality and rightness of sentiment, few poets are so effortless to learn by heart as Housman. So why choose to remember verse that most poets, readers and critics today no longer read, let alone memorize? These are not poems for winning friends and influencing people, at least in any favorable way. They express no political convictions and cannot be reduced to bite-sized nuggets of meaning. They merely please and comfort, and, in traffic, are preferable to the radio. Houston’s only classical music station recently went off the air switched to the “HD radio and digital format,” whatever that means. Not a single listenable station remains on the car radio.
Delingpole says his choice of Housman’s poem is a “guilty pleasure,” which I don’t understand. He can “imagine some snootier critics taking issue with [Housman’s] creaky use of words like `’twas’ and poeticisms like ‘the gale, it’ — or indeed the fact that it rhymes and has a lilting metre.” Who could possibly care what the “snootier critics” think? A reader, when alone, wants pleasure. We want to be moved the way music moves us. When no critic sits beside us, when fashion and ideology are out the window, we want rhymes and a “lilting metre.” We want the virtues poetry always supplied before it was ghettoized. Delingpole says of the predictable critical reactions:
“Really, though, that’s just snobbery. It’s a sad and unnecessary symptom of the same problem many of us have with our favourite poet Betjeman: this fear that by liking something so delightful and accessible we’re selling our intellects short, cheapening our taste. We feel more comfortable venerating stuff that’s pitched slightly over our heads.”
I’m too old for that.