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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Memory Palace, no. 2

Photo courtesy of Micha Sankowski of Warsaw, Poland

Wrestling tournaments and minor disasters have temporarily delayed my poems-by-heart project. So I've decided to shift to one a week, reciting all I've learned so far every day to review. The first poem I learned was this one, an old favorite by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I knew it fairly well already...

Spring and Fall

  to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I found this one quite easy to memorize aside from the compression of "Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed." And the way that I managed that was to remember to move from "springs" to "mouth" (as of a spring.) Then I had a little trouble wanting to swap "mind" and "heart," but alliteration is a great help there, as "mouth" and "mind" are bracketed together by sound, as well as "heart heard."

There are some things I like especially well about this poem: the strong, sonnet-like ending, the Anglo-Saxon influence on alliterative line structure and words that resemble kennings (wanwood, leafmeal, Goldengrove); the constriction and knottiness of syntax that comes at the same time that revelation approaches; the many meanings circling spring/springs and leaving/leaves. I like the way that the poem questions and doubts language, showing us that the word death, say, doesn't matter because all sorrows have the same springs--in fact, heart and spirit are quick to know more than mind and its words.

* * *

Addendum: Still wondering whether this sort of post is desirable--the internet makes me grasp how few non-poets care about poetry in English these days. Although I note that Iris the "interactive semi-conscious AI" seems to like Wallace Stevens. If you have an opinion, please say so!


  1. I would wonder how few non-poets (including myself) are able to care about poetry, any poetry, in any language, unless they know and understand it.......or even know what it is. There appears to be a mystique about the subject, somewhat akin to the mystique about incorrectly labelled, classical music. I can care enough to want the subject to survive and develop, even if I do not understand it. I must have the faith to accept that those 'in the know' can be relied upon to make right choices, if such exist.

    I must say that I do admire your ability to memorise poetry, but am at a loss to understand how a memory palace would work in practice. How does one remember where the rooms and corridors are, and what is contained therein, for example? Surely the passage of time must inevitably loosen the links, wear through the storage carpets, or cause some other dilapidation to the palace's decor.

  2. Hi Tom--

    It's a strange time for poetry--as in so many post-post-postmodern things, a bewildering array of choices is before us. I am addicted to formal poetry and to trying to make that work for our era, but many other modes exist... some of them unbearably boring to me, but clearly they work for some people.

    I haven't actually used the palace yet. Because so far I haven't needed to... I'm on my third poem and find that the elements I talked about earlier (in the post just prior) are effective. But I do want to try it. I'm not sure how it works--that is, whether eventually the under-structure can just disappear, leaving only the words behind. I ought to do some research. Or maybe using it will teach me. But I think probably I won't need it until memorizing a longish free verse poem. Meter is so helpful, and rhyme even more so.

  3. Poetry, even more so than literature in general, has a dwindling readership. Step into any undergraduate classroom (other than one filled with English majors), and you will find very few readers of prose fiction, and even fewer readers of poetry. Perhaps when these people are older they will return to the pleasures of reading, but I have my doubts. Our culture is being transformed by social media and abbreviated bites of communication. I call this the "short attention span" generation. They do not have enough attention even for a sonnet, or -- worse -- for a limerick. As for myself, I am about to withdraw completely into my own cocoon of retirement, reading, and checking off items on my "bucket list." Perhaps more poetry will be on that agenda. In particular, I owe a long overdue visit to Milton's Paradise Lost. And I think Hopkins' poems deserve more of my attention. I am, however, concerned that the sands of the hourglass will run out before I get to the end of Milton. But, such is life!

  4. R. T.,

    It is difficult to compete with manic noise and bells and whistles, no doubt... I have three children, and among them I have a history book reader, a fantasy reader, and an occasional reader. That's in a house overflowing with books, with children who were read to a great deal and until they reached an age when they wanted only to read to themselves.

    I wouldn't mind a reread of Paradise Lost! But I love Hopkins. And Yeats. And...

  5. You, as I recall, were a teacher at the university level, so you understand what I mean when I refer to "literature illiteracy" among students. The vast majority of students have never heard of (let along read) Chaucer, Milton, Yeats, Joyce, Faulkner, Welty, Bellow, Pynchon, and . . . well, the list goes on and on and on. The curricula at universities does nothing to remedy this cultural shortcoming.

  6. Long, long ago... I found it painful that a few of our graduate students who were already teaching children had severe difficulties. And it was especially true of poetry, which some seemed to regard as a difficult puzzle from another land and language.

    My department was not yet transformed by the sort of social criticism and theory and "studies" that have changed the teaching of literature, and I must say that I had a good time and many good students. Way back when...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.