Sooo, a few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to
inflict introduce some students to properly read and declaimed poetry. Now granted, the material helped, but I really got into it. After I finished the assigned poem, the 20 or so students sat there, eyes wide, absolutely silent as if spellbound. It was a glorious feeling. The class before I had recited the first five stanzas or so of “The Man From Snowy River” by A.B. Banjo Patterson. One of the students blurted, “Is that a poem?” He couldn’t believe it. The art of memorizing and reciting poetry seems to be fading a little, or at least, this crop of 12 year olds were not aware that you can memorize “poems” as opposed to, oh nursery rhymes and song lyrics. Which makes sense, because they and their parents have access to every poem ever written (or so it can seem) via a search engine and their iThing. Why memorize it when you can just wave your thumb and summon the words? OK, the school putting a lock on their wireless and prohibiting SmartPhones aside. In the “real world” you always have net access. Aaand I’ve got some lovely ocean front property in Kansas that I’d be willing to part with for a small sum, far less than the property is worth.
I grew up memorizing music and poetry without realizing it, as I suspect many people age 30 and older did. From music for school concerts to songs about the proper nomenclature for a certain type of popular lunch meat, to little ditties chanted in the school yard to irritate your classmates, we memorized verses. I learned more, possibly because my parents encouraged it and possibly because it is relatively easy for me to learn texts by heart. It never occurred to me that other people’s parents did not recite Sandberg’s “The Fog” when it got foggy. Then in junior high, an English teacher required us to learn five poems and recite them. These included “Invictus”, which never really did anything for me, “Spring” from ‘Pippa Passes’ (“The year’s at the Spring/ the Day’s at the morn/ the Morning’s at seven/ the hillside dew-pearled” and so on) and others. I added the introduction to “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and Kipling’s “Recessional,” “Gunga Din,” “Ballad of East and West,” and “Lichtenberg.” And then Banjo Patterson, Australia’s Kipling.
(skip the first 30 seconds or so)
I memorized religious texts as well, but mostly secular verse. Some I know by heart, poems I’ve made my own, like the opening of “The Man from Snowy River” and “The Ballad of East and West.” Others fit moods and moments, like the beginning of “The Highwayman” and “Bridge Guard at the Karroo.” And the one that begins, “Other states are long or wide, but Texas wears a shaggy hide,” or “There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold/ And the arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold . . .” from the “Cremation of Sam McGee.” As you can guess, many are story-poems and ballads with strong rhythms and rhymes. The pattern is like music, and so they lock into my mind.
I love the feel and flow of the words. The images are part of me, if I am on my own or if I have the books at hand. I got very frustrated because I discovered that I did not have “The Destruction of Sennacherib” at hand to recite the other day, Byron’s magnificent take on an episode from the Old Testament. These are words that demand to be spoken aloud, preferably while making eye contact with the listeners. The students, bless them, probably never heard that happen before. And most of what I’ve seen in their textbooks is not meant to be declaimed. But heck, it was listening to Ron Perlman reciting Wordsworth, Frost, Byron, Shelley, Rilke and Shakespeare that started me reading Frost and Rilke. (And if you can find the CD or a track from Of Love and Hope at a reasonable price, I think it is well worth it. Dang, that man can recite Wordsworth and Shakespeare.)
So I think I’ll be learning a little Byron (very little) and more Kipling soon. Because poems in the heart can travel. They go with you. You can call them to you whenever you need them, for strength, or comfort, or just to escape. They can entertain friends and strangers (“Gunga Din” on a hayride in grad school with a bunch of military-history types). And they give a pleasure all their own.