I recently had to memorize “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, a fifty line poem, for one of my classes. The idea was to get into the heart of the words of the poem, feel their rhythm, know the poem in an intimate way that one doesn’t get by silent reading or a few readings aloud. I used YouTube and listened to a guy read the poem over and over and memorized it by way of rote drilling. I probably listened to the poem read twenty-five times. There is something very personal about memorizing poems; I’ve memorized several over the years, not nearly as many as I’d like, and they become a part of my psychic landscape after a while. I quote “The Song of Wandering Aengus” to myself when I’m doing all kinds of non-poetic stuff, and often, when in a piqued mood, I look passersby in the eye and quote “Jabberwocky” to disabuse them of their superiority. I lord my poem horde over the peons like a hermit lords the power of solitude o’er the hoi polloi.
Along the way to absolute dominance, I became curious about the various ways in which one might memorize poetry, and, lo and behold, there are lots of ways in which folk memorize all kinds of stuff. On the website, Mnemotechnics.org, there is a wealth of information for people interested in this notion of owning poetry by heart (I’m quoting Harold Bloom’s expression). Here, even the notion of memorizing whole books is taken seriously, which I find so pleasing to my own aesthetic, though I never plan to do it myself mind you, that I immediately relaxed upon reading the website and Lethe-wards have I sunk. Yet, I must point out that there should be a purpose in memorizing these poems, and voila! I have found fine purpose. Should you follow this link, be prepared to read a good little blog post by Christopher Higgs over at HTMLGIANT about how to approach criticism. The reason the post is so good is not because I think criticism should consist solely in “foregrounding observation over interpretation, and participation over judgment, by asking what a text does rather than what it means,” but because the reader, the normal person reading a work of literature or watching a film or looking at a painting, can use Higgs’ notion as a considered excuse to bleed off the anxiety of getting intellectualized by reading Literature and looking at Art, and can, instead, enjoy the work and find an emotional connection there. If the emotional connection, the visceral reaction, isn’t, first-and-foremost, what an artist hopes to evoke from his audience, then I want no part of the observation. It is, after all, this visceral reaction that prompts the artist to write in the first place, or it was my reason anyway.
Higgs hints at this fact in his essay when he paraphrases Jean-Luc Godard’s statement that “the only valid way to criticize a movie [is] to make one of your own.” Making the poem your own by memorization is a response, an active participation in the work. Jimi Hendrix internalized blues and R&B by listening to songs and playing them in cover bands; he made them his own and turned possession into expression. The vehicle of expression for his own passions and obsessions was a wonderful mix of the old and familiar with the genius of a truly uninhibited imagination. So yeah, what I’m saying is, you can be Jimi Hendrix if you memorize poems. Now Testify children.