On Memory Theaters and Why oh Why
I’ve gone rogue and emeritus now after teaching poets for 30-some years at Purdue University, retiring May 2018, but I always required both my undergrad and graduate students to memorize and recite poems. It was our habit to start each class hearing someone fly or stumble through a piece they found to love, to keep in their bodies forever. I told them knowing a poem to pull out of the blue would come in handy in bars after a couple of beers. It would heroically rally the conversation.
Although I expected mutiny, no one ever complained. Some were terrific, natural reciters. Others—as I mentioned—stumbled through but in one large radiant way, I loved their presentations the most. I always reminded the class that hesitations and any stuttering begin-again brought us closer to the actual process of writing—all its pauses and deliberate rethinking, its wrong turns and immediate self-repair, the nitty-gritty making of a poem, its speed traps and bumps, its oh yeah, right, I get it! Now I figure that if they recall nothing of their experience in my workshop other than the lines of that poem embedded somewhere in their memory theaters (a notion the ancient Greeks dreamed up), it’s a triumph.
My own dive into this was a course in Modern Poetry when I was an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst 42 years ago. The teacher—a poet—was Joseph Langland who made us memorize a poem of at least 30 lines from each poet we studied: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams. I continue to run Frost’s brilliant “After Apple Picking” and Stevens’ “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain” through my body. I have to say, that very physical contact with words and rhythms keeps deepening my astonishment at each poem’s reach and ingenuity. And its lasting power. Every time I say them to myself, those poems feel fresh again, and I’m drawn out of my own vapid thoughts into a larger world.
As for that long-ago class, I still recall how moved I was watching beloved friends—my off-hand, wise-ass companions who usually said whatever in whatever crazy characteristic way—suddenly so wonderfully remote and spot on. Out of their mouths such new sobering thoughts as if they had invented that angle of seeing, those images, that language. Of course, I was one of them, trying to rise to the occasion thrust upon us. The fact was those moments welcomed our motley group into a richer conversation. A revelation: maybe that level of being really was who we were, or were capable of….
But the question: “Why should the average person find poetry to be an important aspect in their lives?”
First: there is no “average” person—poetry proves that, over and over.
Second: Poetry touches the very individual depth in each of us. Its great shared subjects are ancient and eternal: death, love, the natural world, time, knowledge. Plus good poems can be hilarious, surprising, ironic, poignant, downright unnerving, mysterious and urgent as prayer or a message in a bottle cast out to sea.
Third: they are generally short, the size of a pocket, a glimpse, a brief occasion to deepen a certain kind of solitude that we all crave and need. Then we go back to whoever we are, slightly changed having seen– perhaps felt and understood–something else. Poetry as the shade of a great tree giving solace when the hike seems endless.
Like now, during the Pandemic. Like any time–