The other day I was talking to a cat. The cat was sunning himself on a stray blanket, and nobody else was in range to receive my impromptu reflections. I had just solved an entry in a crossword puzzle: CONDUCTED TOUR. Somehow that brought up the word “disregard.” So “Disregard,” I began, and then forgot what I was going to tell the cat to disregard, because part of a poem shouldered in instead: “disregard / That snake on the far threshold.” A literal snake? A shield stuffed against a draft? “This conducted tour / Is specially for you, and disregard …” Who wrote that?
And then I remembered J.R. Ackerley “After the Blitz, 1941?” “It’s a pigeon craning for crumbs,” the snake turns out to be; and then the whole poem came tumbling back, all the way to its devastating conclusion: “Your knock smiting the silence like a gong.” Ackerley’s poem is addressed to a lover who is never coming home, killed in action while the narrator has been watched his home half-destroyed and then rebuilt it. I could remember it all, its insistent but varied rhythms, its interlocking rhymes, its diction awkwardly poised between learned and self-deprecating, all the better for its awkwardness.
“After the Blitz, 1941” lifted me out of brain fog and back to the land of the sentient. Everything else in my mind was eroding, resifting itself into a talus of jumbled words and concepts, but now I’d gotten a poem back that had been so far gone I didn’t know it was missing. It will go again in short order. Nobody will pay its resurfacing any more attention than the cat did. But for a moment, at the age of sixty-two, I was safe on a mental ledge and felt that today, at least, I wasn’t going to slide any further.
I know by heart eighty, maybe ninety, poems. That seems like a lot till you get those books that prescribe learning a hundred or 101 poems: John Hollander’s Committed to Memory, Ted Hughes’ By Heart. I don’t know many of the poems in those books. I know “The Road Not Taken” and “Because I could not stop for Death,” but Hughes and Hollander also recommend stuff like “Tintern Abbey” and “Casey at the Bat.” The spirit is willing, but the brain is weak.
I don’t do much conscious maintenance of my archive. I didn’t set about memorizing most of the poems in it. At times in my life I have tried deliberately to memorize poems: the odes of Keats, Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland – but I have forgotten all of those. Or most of them, or rather, I remember stray lines and passages. I remember parts of hundreds of poems.
Once in a while I will drag an entire piece out of mental storage, say when I’m on a car trip and get tired of singing all the songs I know. But often, as with Ackerley, the scraps of poetry that I know by heart arrive unsought for in my head. A single word may trigger it. An object, maybe; a bar of soap:
He thought he saw an argument
That proved he was the Pope;
He looked again and saw it was
A bar of mottled soap.
And then I wonder what this facet of my being is good for.
Most people who write about memorizing poetry see it as an unmixed positive. (There are exceptions: Catherine Robson’s book Heart Beats is a detailed, skeptical critique of how national educational authorities attempted to mold the minds of British youth by cramming “Casabianca” and “The Burial of Sir John Moore” into them.) But most commentary on whether, how, and why you should learn poems takes the value of memorization as a given. Reflections on learning poems by heart tend to be laments for vanished traditions, forgotten arts. We have forgot much, these writers insist, we have lost the stamina and dedication that led our grandparents to internalize the midnight ride of Paul Revere. And that may be so. But if the poems I knew disappeared from my head, I would stop being reminded of the Pope every time I reached for a bar of soap. A fact so dread, he faintly said, extinguishes all hope.
Being American, postwar born, and largely public-schooled, I never had to memorize a poem as a class assignment. I remember one college professor of mine who offered a surprise final-exam option: write an essay on Dante and Milton, or write out from memory at least nine lines from each poet for the same credit. I felt bad taking advantage, but seeing as I had nothing interesting to say about Dante or Milton, a quick transcript seemed the better part of valor. I beat the length requirement by a couple of lines, but I remember leaving out one line of Milton (“Or of th’Eternal co-eternal beam,” I’m not forgetting that one again). It is harder to learn Dante in the first place, but also harder to leave a line out of the Dante you’ve learned. Terza rima looks pretty scrappy if you leave out one of the rime.
Much later, I had one of my own seminars learn poems, and recite them aloud to one another, though this is not a regular feature of my classes. So I do not have much experience of assigned memorization of verse, and I can’t speak to its virtues or its ill effects. Catherine Robson wonders if mass instruction in learning and reciting Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” taught generations of British schoolboys “that deep within that poem there existed something that hurt, something that told them that some people are worth more than others.” By contrast, Clive James believed, even while wincing at the “miseries” of the “pitiless Australian school system” that forced it on him, that “memorized poetry [is] the surest way of signalling a love of language” and that “the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.”
That’s a heady thought. I wouldn’t have said that my ability to recite “The Pobble Who Has No Toes” was bound up with the survival of the humanities. But James argues that memorizing poetry, especially the overlap between the poetry you’ve memorized and the stuff that other people have, functions as what Italians call gazofilacio, a common store of treasure that facilitates discourse and intellectual community. In celebrating gazofilacio, James is oddly unconcerned about what the content of this storehouse might consist of. He talks about spending an evening with Joseph Brodsky, two public intellectuals “clobbering each other with alexandrines” while apparently not caring what the alexandrines were about. I’d have liked to have been there, too. But the ability to finish a couplet that someone else has started seems to take on an arcane, secret-handshake value. It allows you to distinguish kindred spirits among the alexandrine-insensate masses, but does it help anybody? If that’s the future of the humanities, what’s there to look forward to?
Less grandiose claims for the value of memorization extol its virtues as mental calisthenics, or its ability to support and console the memorizer through difficult stretches of life. Again, it rarely seems to matter what verse one commits to memory, just as it must not matter what the weights you’re lifting are made out of. Veronica Alfano says that memorizing poetry “lets us summon compelling, evocative, finely-crafted language at exactly the moment when it is most relevant to our emotional lives.” Brad Leithauser stresses the physical dimension of memory, which rearranges the marrow of being; memorized poetry “provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.” George Dardess does name a therapeutic poet. After bypass surgery, “the greater benefit,” says Dardess, “during my nine days in the hospital (and ever since), was that intimate sharing of words … Dante’s voice in my head and heart put other, lesser voices in their place, and began the post-op healing of the spirit that continues to this day.” It might depend on whether you learn il sol e l’altre stelle or lasciate ogni speranza.
Molly Worthen invokes bards chanting verse to connect with the divine, prisoners maintaining their sanity through silent recitation. We may not be in prison, and we may not care that we lack numinous vision, but Worthen says that “all of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy.” Poetry gives us a workout in cognitive stamina, while training us in a virtual elocution that saves us from the barbarity of crude vernaculars and unfeeling technical codes.
“Us” comes up a lot in such discussions, and no wonder; “us” comes up a lot in the kinds of poems that people memorize. Thinking through the poems I have at my command, roughly a fifth of them are written in the first-person plural. Poetry that invokes “we” or “us” looms large in the English tradition. Not exclusively, of course. Some first-person-plural lyrics feature specific, realized speakers, as in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We real cool.” Or Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” where the “we” is not everybody and especially not white people, who are admonished for once to stop identifying and simply listen.
Some memorable poems are addressed to an individualized “you,” or are detached descriptions, narratives, dramatic monologues. But much of the poetry that makes a claim on, well, our attention, and aspires to direct our thoughts and feelings, to exhort us to think differently, or alternatively to entrench our primal feelings and reconfirm them … a good deal of this memorable poetry invokes “we” and “us.”
The world is too much with us, late and soon; you might as well be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn. But what if you read Wordsworth’s sonnet and you happen to be a pagan? Good for you, I guess; the poem is quite pagan-positive. But it starts by assuming that all its readers must be upper-middle class folk with demanding careers and extensive acquisitions budgets. I don’t know that everyone is.
All the “we’s” I have been enlisted into, just by knowing a poem! “That memory may our deed redeem / When, like our sires, our sons are gone.” The “we” who “set a votive stone by the rude bridge in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord are old Yankee stock and apparently men in the bargain, and by intoning the poem I become one of them, despite being Slavic, Catholic, and a latecomer. “What shall we say who have knowledge / Carried to the heart?” asks Allen Tate, where I become a son of the Confederacy. When I murmur “Our part to murmur name upon name” I become an ambivalent Anglo-Irishman like William Butler Yeats, taking the long aestheticist view of Easter 1916. Or again with Yeats, as he bemoans his old-man problems in “Among School Children” and then subtly inserts “How can we tell the dancer from the dance” as if they are my problems too. Well, I am a sixty-year-old man, though private, rarely smiling, and one hopes not inclined to be stirred into passionate fantasies by gazing at schoolgirls.
“The same thing may be said for all of us,” says Marianne Moore in “Poetry” – not that we all have erotic fantasies about schoolgirls, but “that we / do not admire what / we cannot understand.” That principle seems safely universal. But the ease with which Moore introduces it, moving from “I” to “we” as she expresses her skepticism about poetry itself, is the mode of a lot of anthology poems.
W.H. Auden made a career out of speaking for his readers. It can start benignly: “You were silly like us,” he tells Yeats in his eulogy, and maybe this is just a eulogy convention. “There are so many we shall have to mourn,” Auden says in his eulogy for Sigmund Freud. But the kind of voice that produces eulogies tends to assume its own representativeness. Auden soon turns to the broadest characterizations of a people he feels eminently qualified to speak for. “I and the public know” various things, he says; “we must love one another or die.” “We believe and die” in the “raw towns” of Yeats’ Ireland or anywhere else that Auden’s voice can reach, a flock united in the entangling of poetry and prayer. In “In Praise of Limestone,” “we” are “the inconstant ones” but we still offer “our Common Prayer.”
And much of this “we” in English verse comes out of the hymnals that sit next to Books of Common Prayer in some churches, or four-square unadorned Bibles in others. That first-person plural is so pervasive that it works itself into relatively secular poems like Henry David Thoreau’s “Inspiration”: “Whate’er we leave to God, God does, / And blesses us; / The work we choose should be our own, / God lets alone.” Thoreau’s is not the God of the 21st-century American suburbs, who gives advice on career paths and major purchases. But the God who micro-manages American lifestyles persists in a hymn tradition that is alive today. “We beseech thee, hear us”; “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land” – though now I realize I remember all these “we” hymns not from church but from the Broadway cast album of Godspell, but no matter, they got into my head all the same. And other people’s heads. Any time bad things happen, people get together and sing “Amazing Grace” with its promise that when “we’ve been there ten thousand years” we’ve no less days than when we’d first begun. Which sounds depressing. But people assemble and sing it because there are few songs we all know the same words to, and “Amazing Grace” sounds more appropriate than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
There is a secular version of this universal comfort in the bits of Wallace Stevens’ verse that I still know. A singer, in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” impels her suddenly plural listeners to realize that:
[…] we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
Stevens liked to give his poems random names, but I am vaguely bothered that this epiphany happens at Key West, as if epiphanies were the product of exclusive tourist destinations. In “Sunday Morning,” the great late-Romantic disdainment of revelation and Resurrection, “We live in an old chaos of the sun” where “deer walk upon our mountains,” and the deer I suppose are figurative, metonymic for nature itself, but I cannot shake the feeling that secular transfigurations are the birthright of those who own acres of mountainside and the right to hunt deer and quail on them.
I grew up reading T.S. Eliot before I discovered Wallace Stevens, and Eliot did his best to fold me into the “we” of Common Prayer and an allegiance, forged purely out of poetry, to Anglican traditions that I had no part of, and which would not have welcomed me if I had pursued them in person instead of just filing away their anthems in my memory. Not all of Eliot’s poetry, of course. “Prufrock” and The Waste Land are poems of the “I” who shores fragments against his ruins, a stand-in for anyone whose head is cluttered with disassembled poems. Even “Ash Wednesday” is in the first person singular. But after Eliot became central to English-language poetry, he took on the mantle of the plural. Four Quartets is the ultimate poem of “us.” “Little Gidding” takes place “in the ground of our beseeching” where “we shall not cease from exploration.” As he established in “East Coker,” “for us, there is only the trying.” And as self-effacing and undogmatic as Eliot tries to be in Four Quartets, if the center is finally to hold and things aren’t to be dissolve into stony rubbish, we must cement everything together in “us.” The serene presumption that the poet speaks for everybody persists in my own memory and offers me a dubious, notional community that I don’t belong to, every time T.S. Eliot pops up out of my mental vault.
Robert Frost, who never had much problem asserting himself in verse, has recourse to “we” less often than I remembered – that’s the problem with memory, things rearrange themselves and Frost gets reshaped in the image of Eliot. Sure, “Directive” begins “Back out of all this now too much for us,” but “Directive” is not really a “we” poem; it is about an “I” saying something special, though imperative, to a “you.” And when he most famously embraced “we,” in “The Gift Outright,” Frost wasn’t talking about everybody. He was specifically speaking for old Yankees, to upbraid them, not to blithely assume like Emerson that anyone in his right mind would want to identify with an old Yankee. “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” but “the deed of gift was many deeds of war.” I am sure that many people have heard “The Gift Outright” as a heroic, manifestly-destined poem where “we” are an idealized melting-pot America, but it is no more that kind of patriotic blather than “The Road Not Taken” is about the road less traveled by. (Because everyone mishears “The Road Not Taken,” too: “both that morning equally lay / in leaves no step had trodden black.” They remember the words but not the meaning.) Robert Frost may not have been a nice man, but he is more interesting to remember than many a sanguine asserter of communal identity.
“We, life’s pride and cared-for crown / Have lost the cheer and charm of man’s past prime”: speak for yourself, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “We mortal millions live alone,” a chilling thought for Matthew Arnold’s family. “Our lives are Swiss, so still, so cool” … well, Emily Dickinson may have me there, I have never been an exuberant kind of guy.
But there’s also the poetic “we” that features as a sort of lonely-hearts club. Erotic despair is apparently something “we,” in poems, can always identify with. Which of us has not known erotic despair? But not everyone has. Some people are lucky in love early and for keeps. Others have more pressing concerns than dating, and others just can’t be bothered. Poems, though, want to throw everybody into the same foamy, yearning bath of desire. For Edwin Arlington Robinson, speaker and listeners, pondering a lost beautiful woman, merge into “We, who dwell in beauty’s lore.” “We must weep and sing / Duty’s conscious wrong,” says Auden, because “Time with us was always popular” – “Our Bias,” he puts it; and as a result
We must lose our loves,
On each beast and bird that moves
Turn an envious look.
“We cannot cage the minute / Within its nets of gold,” agrees Louis MacNeice, though we excruciatingly try to. “What will survive of us is love,” Philip Larkin concludes, though not before qualifying this hopeful-sounding assertion as “our almost-instinct, almost true.”
Perhaps we all have the same problems in love, or perhaps we don’t, or perhaps we can never know if we do or not. Poems don’t care about representing reality. Poems get inside the people who memorize them and shape their reality. Poems can even get out in front of reality and prepare their learners to feel about certain catastrophes in case they should ever happen, much as watching Contagion taught us how to feel about COVID-19 long before it arrived, much as legions of disaster films primed people to react to 9/11. Or for that matter, much as Auden’s “September 1, 1939” seemed to be waiting for people to channel their experience of 9/11 through, because they could remember that it mentioned September, and New York, and evil. And then, for no reason they could explain, to sing “Amazing Grace.”
Love poems lie dormant till life aligns with them, and leap out to be performed in real life the way a learner has rehearsed them in recitation. Let’s say somebody dumps you. “Go, lovely rose,” you think. “Tell her that wastes her time and me” that she’s as beautiful as a rose, but has a shelf life about as long as a cut rose’s. She’s fixing to die, if a little slower than the flower he sends her. She’s fixing to wither before that happens, and nobody will send her flowers any more.
I think that’s the implication. But Edmund Waller also talks about how the young woman has no value unless the speaker is gazing at her. “Hadst thou sprung / In deserts, where no men abide, / Thou must have uncommended died.” It isn’t about her, as it turns out; it isn’t even about how he feels. It’s about his ability to commend her in words, and her lack of appreciation – possibly for poetry itself. Learners who internalize “Go, Lovely Rose” rarely stop, I reckon, to wonder if “she” would be fine without being on display for poets’ libidos. Maybe she wants to be on her own and write poems about hot young guys. Or women. Or, it being the 17th century, the Lord. Or just to tend her own garden, where she knew about the ephemerality of roses all along.
“Then die, that she / The common fate of all things rare / May read in thee” – all things of beauty except poems, which are aere perennius, impervious to physical decay because they have never been physically embodied, but passed from mind to mind, paper or screens briefly intervening. So poems always celebrate their own immortality, their mockery of the mouths that mouth them.
Ezra Pound, before his fascist days, was so taken with the unforgettability of “Go, Lovely Rose” that he wrote a poem about it, “Envoi,” which I memorized too; I think I first heard of Waller while learning “Envoi.” Long after Waller and the lovers he created died, the beloved in “Envoi” keeps repeating the verse that finds temporary lodging in her mind, not realizing in turn that:
[…] some other mouth
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller’s shall be laid.
But is this legacy a perpetuation of beauty, or the perpetual re-engraving of the centuries-old romantic resentment of entitled men? Pound may reinforce Waller’s objectification of women. He may critique it – but what kind of Western tradition am I stewarding in my brain, if Ezra Pound is one of its most progressive voices?
Most of the poetry I know by heart was written by men. White, privileged, Anglo men at that. Emily Dickinson is an exception, and I remember a few lines by Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Mew (“Sure enough she wasn’t there / Lying awake with her wide brown stare”) … but even those women don’t get me far from white, privileged, and Anglo.
I page through anthologies of classic English poems – volumes that my father used to refer to absurdly as Immoral Pomes of the English Language – and I keep finding long stretches of English neo-pastoral, from Tintern Abbey right down through Larkin’s “Going, Going” – so much of this stuff the product of comfortable, educated gentlemen out on aimless gentlemanly strolls, thinking of a way to dye their whiskers green, constructing quasi-fantastic representations of the fulsome contentments of the rustic yeoman. This tradition barely speaks for most white men, let alone the whole world.
And the verse that I know is old. Philip Larkin is the least dead of my white men, and he has been gone nearly 40 years now. Despite a brief renaissance of New Formalism late in the 20th century, few people write metrical, rhyming verse any more. Putting it that way sounds like a lament, but plenty of poets, going back to the dawn of Modernism, have seen it as a liberation: we don’t have to write in set patterns anymore, we have thrown off rules and shackles, we are free. Free verse can be great writing. It is just really hard to memorize.
Women poets, poets of color, postcolonial poets do not compete for the grasp that the gentlemanly tradition had on the sensibilities of generations, thanks to those men’s incantatory headlock on the structures that make verse memorable. Poets are now free, they can now be heard, but nobody can internalize what they have to say. Of course, contemporary white male poets have slackened their grip on memory, too. Perhaps the resistance of poets, since the death of Larkin, to the kinds of verse that cling to the memory is good. Perhaps “we” would all be better off for not packing our heads with voices anymore. But whenever people urge us to memorize – as good mental exercise, consolation, inspiration – what we internalize still must be the organ-voices of the past: Waller and Milton, Yeats and Larkin.
One might say, just try harder to memorize new poetry. But some art forms resist the effort to take them in. The resistance of contemporary poetry to memorization, like the decline of memorization itself, can be a cause for lament. Clive James, again, says that “most modern poetry … avoids all verse conventions without rising to the level of decent prose.” I think James’ complaint is a matter of taste. Even James admits that admirers of good prose “might not even especially remember what someone once said.”
Prose goes in the ear or eye and back out, rarely leaving a trace. 21st-century verse does the same, even when it is lightly patterned; contemporary verse is diffident about inscribing itself in the memory. But great free verse, like great prose, is high verbal art even if you can rarely remember an entire sentence of it.
And hardly anyone can. Characters in movies often quote passages of prose to one another. This seems wrong to me. It must be based on the idea that knowing prose comes as natural to smart folks as knowing songs or lyrics. But it doesn’t, and characters trading prose sentences like a dueling pair of Bartlett’s Quotations strike a sharp note of irreality. In real life, learning any stretch of prose – or free verse – beyond a quick phrase or tag, embedding it in long-term memory where it can be produced and compared with the memorized prose of others, is just not a thing. The drifters in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who can recall entire prose works, are exceptional, magical-realist characters. Only such fantasy folk can remember more than the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, or for that matter more than a stray phrase or two of Natasha Trethewey’s “Meditation at Decatur Square.” The rest of us are stuck with “The Road Not Taken.”
As a silent reader, or as a listener to the spoken word, it matters little to me if I can’t remember the poems of Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Kim Addonizio, A. Van Jordan, or many another recent poet that I’ve admired. Their writing, to coin a phrase, is what it is. It is not the tetrameter quatrain of Hardy or Housman, and it is all the better for it. But as an avid if often inadvertent memorizer, I can’t learn it; I pick up only iambs and end-rhymes.
Voices can emerge even from gentlemen past to counteract the corrosiveness of Edmund Waller’s take on relationships. Edwin Arlington Robinson was fond, as I’ve noted, of speaking for “us” in his poems. But the best of them, in my mental store at least, invokes a “we” who cannot even confidently speak for one another.
“Eros Turannos” presents a relationship fraught with anguish. “She fears him, and will always ask / What fated her to choose him”; he’s terrible for her. But when the poem turns toward “his” perspective, he too is trapped: “She secures him.” The couple is locked together in overlapping bonds of love and hate from which there is no escape: “love” in the poem is both a tyrant and a straitjacket.
After five stanzas, the speaker of the poem – till then omniscient – morphs into “we.” But for once this is not a “we” bound together by common ancestry, or values, or even beseeching; it is a “we” sharply aware of our own ignorance:
We tell you, tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be;
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be.
All we’s who claim to speak for us, all poets who claim insight into anyone else, are guessing in the dark. “We do no harm,” the speaker of “Eros Turannos” suggests. The shackled couple we speculate about go their own way, “a stairway to the sea / Where down the blind are driven,” and take no notice of tales that others tell. If you want a corrective to certainties about love, or to certainties about the certainty of poetry itself, you should memorize “Eros Turannos.”
Robinson was much possessed by transience; I noted “For a Dead Lady.” Another of his that I have by heart is “The Sheaves,” where the title objects, like “girls with golden hair,” are “not for long to stay.” The poems I find most memorable often concern mortality itself. “Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend / Before we too into the Dust descend,” as Edward Fitzgerald said that Omar Khayyam once said. Matthew Arnold’s God ruled a severance between the experiences and interests of different sections and intersections of humanity; still to this favor we must come, and await alike th’inevitable hour; as Emily Dickinson put it, “our portion in the fashion done.”
Nobody is exempt from dying. “In so far as we have to look forward to death,” as (naturally) Auden put it, we are not diverse or distinct: Housman’s “purely geographical divisions” separate class from class, color from color, in the grave. If poetry can ever really address “us,” it is on this ground, the abruptness of absolutely everybody’s extinction. Even if you believe, as a fair tranche of the English tradition claims to have believed, in a desirable afterlife, the ways to get there are disconcerting. For every Dickinson who claimed that she was certain of her heavenly destination “as if the Checks were given,” there is a Hamlet for whom the future is the “undiscovered country.” For that matter, for every confident Emily Dickinson there is an Emily Dickinson who expires blankly as a fly annoys her “with blue uncertain stumbling Buzz.” The tradition is rarely consistent for long about its own serenity.
“It is the blight man was born for,” Hopkins observes, the prospect of being recycled into “leafmeal.” It oppresses Robert Frost when he stops by woods on a snowy evening, whether on a night of easy wind and downy flake or an even more angst-ridden one where the loneliness includes him unawares. It oppresses Thomas Hardy, well past eighty, as he watches an automobile pass: “And mute by the gate I stand again alone / And nobody pulls up there.”
When Yeats was even older than the sixty he’d reached among those school children, he was still “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal,” and in one of his most terrible poems (in several senses), “Politics,” he cannot keep his attention on vital current events, because “that girl” is still “standing there”: and “O that I were young again / And held her in my arms.” Death proverbially lends urgency to love. My memorized poems also keep circling back to the urgency that mortality lends, not just to love, but to consciousness itself. We must prize our own perceptions before they vanish.
No matter who you are, you’re going to be unconscious for a very long time. Some new equation may be given, Dickinson allows, “but what of that?” Unconsciousness quickly inspires indifference. “I shall not see the shadows, / I shall not feel the rain,” said Rossetti, and after that happens, whether you remember or forget comes to the same thing.
If most advertising jingles are about having it all and most country songs are about trucks, most of the Immoral Pomes are about death. Even more than English pastoral scenes, the poetry of the memory tradition talks about death – when it’s not talking about both, as in Gray’s “Elegy.” Death-possessed poets even write poems about how many poems there are about death. A.E. Housman imagined a poet’s audience complaining:
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad.
Housman’s speaker, Terence, replies with a story about the legendary Mithridates who, paranoid and clever, went on a diet of little snacks of poison till he was immune to anything his enemies tried to slip him:
First a little, then to more,
He sampled all their killing store,
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
I admit I memorized “Terence, this is stupid stuff” mainly for its sentiments about pints and quarts of Ludlow beer. But I got my prophylactic dose of poison along the way, and the inoculation has perhaps staved off depressions I never knew I was in for.
But then there is Philip Larkin, again, waiting to deliver an overdose against which there is no immunity. I don’t know why I learned “Aubade,” but it is too late to forget it now; I will have to wait to try Christina Rossetti’s technique. “Aubade” is calculated to tip you over from melancholy to madness. Unlike most of Larkin’s poems, “Aubade” is not particularly English in its setting or references. In “Aubade” he aims at being truly universal, not just universal by right of his Englishness. As the voice in the poem shifts from “I” to “we,” it assumes the authority to speak for everyone who will read the poem, or worse, memorize it.
“The mind blanks at the glare” – the implacable, inevitable wall of death ahead: “Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon.” “Aubade” sidesteps self-pity of the we’re-all-gonna-die variety, and graveyard humor too – by avoiding overstatement, by coming back to brass tacks: lowest-bidder building-supply brass tacks at that. “This is what we fear,” not Hamlet’s fear of unpredictabilities beyond the bourne but “no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell.” Larkin fears unconsciousness itself – reversing the traditional wish for requiem, the embrace of unfeelingness.
What a thing to carry around with you, embedded in some neural pathway inside your head! Humans lament their foreknowledge of coming death. But then they’ll go to Larkin-like extremes to embody a metrical, rhyming reminder of the reasons to get half drunk at night and then maybe not to get up in the morning at all. Does “Aubade” help, as Housman’s Terence thought poems could? I don’t think so. I think it makes things worse.
“Get out as early as you can,” advised Larkin in “This Be the Verse,” but more often his poems clutch at some vestigial sense that a mortal defiance can be of some avail, however quixotically displayed. There’s “what will survive of us is love,” from “An Arundel Tomb,” which seems almost rosy for Larkin, though it is set off by all kinds of bitter ironies and doubts the possibility of love itself. Sex is mostly awful, in Larkin’s verse, and the people who practice it are worse, like the tasteless bridal parties he sneers at in “The Whitsun Weddings,” but still, sex in that poem contains “all the power / That being changed can give,” and that’s not nothing.
My favorite, “Church Going,” is comparatively hopeful though resolutely anti-theist. In “Church Going” pastoral England is reduced to an empty building that embarrasses everybody with its scruffy rituals and its coming ruin, itself pastorally picturesque, the church crumbling into “grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.” “Church Going” is immensely skillful and affecting, profoundly humanist – all the while being arch and self-effacing and skeptical. It ends up having things both ways. The speaker gets to scoff at the fabric of the church and the ineffectual routines that are barely enough to preserve it in the midst of a disintegrating society – and then to turn around and express the old certainty that the faithful had it right all along, “Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious.”
I have never met anything I wouldn’t wisecrack at, but I suppose I came to write these reflections on the poems inside me out of a hunger to be more serious. I subscribe to an Internet bot that sends me messages about famous historical figures exactly as old as I am today. In a few months the bot will announce that I am exactly as old as Philip Larkin was when he died. All I have to show for that is a grab-bag of useless scraps of poems, hardly any of them intact and most wrongly-recalled when I do have them whole. I am a full professor of English literature, and as I wander around my office building, singing showtunes and jingles from 1960s radio ads, I meet my faculty colleagues, most of them far younger. I sometimes proffer a bit of verse, the kind of thing you do when you are eccentric but don’t want to be blatantly creepy. “The early petal-fall is past,” I might remark, or “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” A new Ph.D. takes a coffee spoon from a drawer, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” surely they’ll know that one, fewer and fewer do. Before long I will be raving alone in front of the break-room microwave, Ara vos prec per aquella dolor / qui vos guida al som de l’escalina and forget the rest and look around and nobody pulls up there.
Though what am I trying to do here but cast out trotlines of my own gazofilacio in hopes that someone will bite. What do I have to convey, anyway, a few scraps about death and lust, the best of which are ironic twists on themselves, a few allusions to Ben Jonson’s better cheeses and John Keats’ last oozings hours by hours, afloat in my banal world of Whole Foods and Total Wine. “You are old, Father William,” someone will someday tell me. Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs.
It occurs to me that I know more lines by Lewis Carroll than by any other poet. Carroll and Edward Lear and A.A. Milne. Some children’s verse I carry around from my own childhood and some I patched in from other people’s; some I instilled in my son and some I am starting to recite to a step-granddaughter. ‘Tis the voice of the lobster. O hast’ou slain the Jabberwock? The time has come, the walrus said. A bear, however hard he tries / Grows tubby without exercise. Last seen wandering vaguely / quite of her own accord. Alice is marrying one of the guard; a soldier’s life is terribly hard.
Better than heartache or death, perhaps, but still not much to end up with. The last items in my mental warehouse to go will be King John and his big, red india-rubber ball; the banker’s clerk and the hippopotamus descending from a bus. Some apple sass, and sparrowgrass / And soft-shell crabs on toast. And the golden grouse came there / And the Pobble who has no toes. Stop! You must not hop on pop.
Death is one universal experience; taxes are said to be another; childhood is a third. Even people who never outlive childhood at least got to be children, and everybody who outlives it shares the experience of having once been a child. With that comes the shared experience of initiation into language. At first it seems nonsense and babble, this welter of words. But one of the ways we – truly we, now – take hold of the language we must acquire is to hear how that welter gets shaped by the forces of rhythm and rhyme into the structure of poetry, no less nonsensical for having the shape of verse, but integral to our initiation into the prosodies and pronunciations of our eventual tongue.
Childhoods are culturally specific, too. For all their weirdness, Carroll and Milne and Lear are of a piece with other writers from the tradition. Mother Goose filled my childhood with references to English places, things and customs which made no sense to me. But then, 20th-century Chicago was making no sense to me at the time, either. Why not double down on the strangeness of existence itself?
Power circulates through childhood and hence through children’s verse. We learn from Milne that a childhood insulated by stuffed bears and donkeys is also insulated by servants, even if we ourselves will never have servants and may be service workers ourselves. From Carroll, children learn that the threat of violence and unreasonableness is always around the corner; from Lear that the world is full of crazy uncles and unnamed benthic creatures on the prowl to steal your toes. And from the anonymous tradition: the poem about soft-shell crabs that I picked up from a picture book by Wallace Tripp teaches that if you try to pay a man fifty cents for the enormous meal your date consumes, he will take you where your pants hang loose and throw you o’er the fence.
So maybe children’s poetry is no more innocent than poetry for adults. I have even devoted some of my supposedly adult life to writing about that lack of innocence in ostensibly childish songs and stories. But at some irreducible level, all children come into the world with identical linguistic gifts, and the same propensity to ramble and sway in verse, to chant and prattle and make tall tippy-top towers of sound, to listen spellbound. To memorize; to repeat back, to get something wrong, to fabulate and stand corrected and take another run at a piece.
Somebody recited some verse to the child me, half-singing, once, and I nattered it along to other children later. And still later I would learn by heart a poem about adults passing on lore to children aloud in the form of fantastic nonsense, as if the point of language itself was to transmit the shell of nonsense, its rhyming lines, instead of whatever skills and facts it might convey: Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen.”
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock;
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
I remember confidently saying that my dog would be able to speak at midnight on the 24th. I kept saying that long into my teenage years, half in irony and half from a sense that some piece of nonsense had to be worth holding onto, till I was no longer certain for once if I was being ironic or not. And like the speaker in “The Oxen,”
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come, see the oxen kneel”
Then, like that speaker, though maybe to the garage or the carport instead of a lonely barton in a coomb,
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
And someday in the shower, staring at the soapdish, I shall prove myself the Pope.