In praise of memorization

Recently I went looking for a certain poem by Richard Wilbur, after mentioning it to a friend. The book itself is physically full of memories: purchased decades ago when I was in college, it shows the stains from a Yosemite trip two decades later, when a bear broke into our car, ate many foods that disagreed with him, and left various bodily fluids behind. But those are only the outer memories.

A few of Wilbur’s poems were among ones I memorized for my own enjoyment sometime between the bear and now. I used to copy poems on index cards and tape them to the dashboard so I could read them aloud while driving, repeating the lines until I had them by heart. The point was not to impress anyone–I’ve never repeated one to another person–but to have them in my mind to “read over” to myself. I liked them and wanted to have them around.

But I found this interior possession of the texts enabled a different sort of experience with the poem from the one I have with poems on a page. Perhaps it is like the difference between studying some historic coin in a clear plastic holder at your desk, and carrying it in your pocket daily for a year or two. Your senses and your mind will acquire a quite different apprehension of that coin. Same with the poems in my head, except that I did not have to worry about them getting worn and dulled from handling.

It also gave me a tiny taste of an older human culture based on memory and oral performance of works, rather than reliance on writing, and private silent reading. Homer’s works are the most famous examples; the Iliad (>15,000 lines) and the Odyssey (>12,000 lines) were preserved and performed orally, a few scenes at a time. Alexander the Great is said to have memorized the entire Iliad. In a few religions today the entire sacred book is memorized by some, and in India minstrels are said to have the entire Mahabharata (six times the length of the Bible) in memory. And, in all these cases, most ordinary people had a deep familiarity with these works–their characters and events–and could quote and recognize many lines and phrases.

It’s not necessary to read text aloud in order to hear it, and I found myself hearing new sound relationships within a poem as well as savoring familiar ones. Once I’d become intimate with a poem in this way, occasionally a line or phrase would surface in my thought, brought forward by some part of my mind that found it apt to the current situation or a passing thought, and this expanded what I saw in the poem. The poem was always available to me, to be considered as advice for living, as sound or rhythm, as a product of craft, an example of style, an exemplar of how life seemed to someone at a particular time and place. This wasn’t some scholarly exercise, it was enjoyable as an end in itself. But I can only guess at how it was, or is, to have the living texts of your culture within your mind in this way: the Icelandic sagas, the Iliad, the Hindu epics. What a richness!

I’ll have to work on these poems again because my memory has faded over the years. Now, the only one I remember most of is a grim work by James Shirley (1596-1666) with a jogtrot rhythm, that begins

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings.

The last lines are sometimes quoted:

Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

And here’s the Richard Wilbur poem that started all this.

Praise In Summer by Richard Wilbur 

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it?  To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

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