Husker Du?

Memorizing poetry is a task usually undertaken for dubious reasons. It's sometimes required by teachers. I had to commit Eliot's Prufrock to memory for an undergraduate professor, and the thing is still there all these years later. Oftentimes, too, one commits poetry to memory as part of some ill-advised self-improvement project (not unlike those ads you see suggesting that you can become a business success by improving your vocabulary). Then there are those memorizers who hope to impress others with vain displays of erudition. Sadly, I've memorized verse for all of these unflattering reasons. Even so, I'm glad I did.

The problem, of course, is that the opportunity to recite seldom arises-- unless you're with drunken Irishmen of a certain grizzled age. One night in Milwaukee I found myself with a bunch of Irish musicians in a rooftop hotel bar. Everyone was pretty well lit, and someone said a poem aloud. Having more than enough in me, I decided to recite one as well (and anyone who knows me understands it takes a lot to get me to perform in public). Anyway, I gave them some Louis MacNiece, a poem called "Alcohol," a gloomy little thing whose last lines go like this:

Enough of your slogans! Give us something to swallow.
Give us beer or whiskey, schnapps or gin.
This is the only road for the self-betrayed to follow,
Not the road that leads out, but the road that leads in.

And then, as if in response to a challenge, up pops an old Irish guy who recites this long, long ballad, which was wonderful. Everyone in the bar fell silent and listened. The guy really nailed it. Maybe it was the booze or his Irish charm, but that was a magical moment. Anyway, the next day I was hung-over and a friend told me that the guy I had been swapping poems with was Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers.

Like I said, however, such opportunities seldom arise. In the end, there is just not much use for memorizing poetry. It is, like so many uselessly worthwhile pastimes, its own strange reward. More than once, I have passed the time on long trips intoning verse to an empty car. I recall a lengthy train ride between Carlisle and the southwest coast of England near Bristol. Bored, I began silently to go over some of my own poems. To my surprise, I found that I liked a lot of them – even liked the person who must have written them. Going through those old poems was like meeting myself afresh. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Whitman writes, "Who was to know what should come home to me?"

I realize that my own poems are little more than snarky limericks or formless and inept attempts to be profound, but they’re mine, so I retain an affection for them despite their flaws. They are, as my friend once grandiloquently put it, the “collected detritus of my unfinished being." So I think everybody should memorize a few poems, maybe even a few of their own. If nothing else, it gives you something to do in prison.

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