Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Committed to Memory

In the essay on Gianfranco Contini in Cultural Amnesia, Clive James writes that
Even before my first celebrated classroom appearance as Lady Macbeth shrilly demanding that her milk be taken for gall, I had the shape, weight, and length of iambic pentameter in my mind, as a sort of sonic template. A long time later, in Cambridge, I abruptly realized what a blessing this early inculcation had been. In the practical criticism classes, the American affiliated students were incomparably better informed than the locals--incomparably more intelligent all round, to put it bluntly--but the one thing the Americans could not do to save their lives was recite the verse in front of them. Whether it was by Donne, Herbert, Fulke Greville, Lovelace, Marvell or Dryden, it came out like a newsflash being read sight unseen by Dan Rather. They had no feeling for a line of iambic pentameter whatever. On their being quizzed about this, it transpired that they had never been required to remember one.
I don't know that I was ever required to learn any poem by heart other than "Sea-Fever" by John Masefield. Yet there are a number of poems I did so learn, some of which I remember better than "Sea-Fever". Whether my recital of "Whoso List to Hunt" (which I find would be inaccurate here and there) would be up to Cambridge standards, I can't say.

The American poet John Hollander, who died this week, published in 1996 the anthology Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize. Hollander divided the poems as Sonnets, Songs, Counsels, Tales, and Meditations. I bought the book at a school book fair; another father, to whom I pointed it out, said the he'd buy it if it contained "If"; it did, under Counsels. As I recall, it was was "Mnemosyne" that sold me. Committed to Memory is a fine book to have around the house; unfortunately it seems to be out of print.

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