Monday, February 10, 2014

Memory Palace, no. 3

Image courtesy of Michaela Kobyakov of Leonding,
Austria and
I find your project to memorize poetry and then write about it intellectually stimulating, lovely, and touching. You may be right about only poets wanting to read about poetry, but a huge percentage of people are poets who just don't write poetry. If they have the ability to be moved, they can and do love poetry. --Philip Lee Williams
What do you think about that lovely summation? Is it true?

Perhaps I'll continue writing notes about the poems I memorize; perhaps not. At any rate, I am learning and feeling things about poems that one can't learn in any other way. A memorized, delivered poem (in the mind or outloud) seems to engage the whole person, and the importance of pauses increases. One is not longer juggling words and doing a degree of study about how to read the poem when the poem flows forth, memorized. I find that the longer one repeats a poem, the more subtle variation in in pause and emphasis becomes evident. A memorized poem partakes of a natural out-springing like a stream from earth and rocks.

The second poem I memorized was this one by Shakespeare (no. 98), not one of the best known of his sonnets. I memorized it once in college for an exam, but had forgotten much of it over the years.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
   Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
   As with your shadow I with these did play.
This one does not want to stay lodged in my head, and though I have it now, I fear that I'll have to work to keep it from tumbling out again (rather like the two knotty lines in the Hopkins poem I memorized first.) Some of the difficulty may be due to inversion of syntax, but while memorizing it I noticed other things as stumbling points. "Nor the sweet smell / Of different flowers in odour and in hue" always feels a little redundant to me, so I kept thinking that I had the lines wrong. The stop in the third quatrain gives a bit of trouble because the quatrain splits into related parts, and the jump from the rose and lily to the "figures of delight" (which seem to work both as images and as rhetorical figures) drawn after the red and white complexion trope beloved of Renaissance writers made me go blank a few times.

Also, the turns in thought that mark the Shakespearean sonnet happen remarkably early, and so I didn't expect a shift in the fifth line. In fact, the whole poem with its yets and nors becomes turn, turn, turn, long before the closing couplet and the closing turn from summer to winter, from bright to dark.

Courtesy of Istvan Benedek of Budapest, Hungary and


  1. I believe that subtlety of pace and pause will be finer when the meaning of a line/poem becomes fused in one's memory than when read (slightly more dogmatically) line by line.

    A poem can wed itself to one's experience once memorized. I guess this is why 'awkwardness' in lines have to be worked on to be remembered.
    One has to 'make something sensible' of those parts which appear to make less sense, or are redundant?

    I do think that many people who do not write poetry can be moved by it. Particularly when the poem is acted (read aloud) by someone who knows the poem so well that they can act it effectively!

  2. Hi Paul--

    I think it will be finer too. One is always to some degree searching when reading from the page.

    Of course, not every poem is perfected, even when by a Shakespeare. Memorizing tests the weak joints and points.

    I hope that's so, but I imagine many people these days never encounter any.

    Still can't figure out why you were relegated to the Gulf of Spam with the unfortunate Chinese salesmen. I got you out just in time. The others have all been eaten by roving Balrogs.

  3. At the risk of rushing in where angels might fear to tread, my first response to the Philip Lee Williams quote, or perhaps more exactly the second point he makes about the 'huge percentage of people,' is "What is a poet?"

    If it were true that, for example, only musicians want to read about music, or only physicists want to read about physics, then it might be true that only poets want to read about poetry. In my experience, the two examples given above are not true. Why then should it be true of poets?

    If people have an ability to be moved they might be able to love poetry. But that implied doubt negates the certainty of the phrase, 'do love poetry'.

    I do not believe his comment is exclusively relevant to 'poets' but perhaps is more generally relevant to interested, or simply curious, people at large. But again I would ask what he means by being a poet.

  4. Interesting. I'd say that a poet is a person who writes poems. Then the question becomes, "What is a poem?"

  5. P. S. Yes, I know I just wriggled out of answering! Of course! And changed the subject...

  6. Perceptive remarks about the many turnings of way in this sonnet. They are, at their best, very flexible little boites.

  7. Yes, this one is extra-wriggly, I think.

  8. Shakespeare is a craft old fellow. We are so accustomed to expecting the ever so subtle "turns" after each quatrain and the obvious "turn" (envoi) at the beginning of the couplet. My own preferences go to the Italian sonnet with the octave-sestet balance. And I really like the ways in which Hopkins uses and adapts the Petrarchan form.

    Now, of course, since you have nearly mastered one of Shakespeare's sonnets, you have how many of his left? Something like 140? I forget the exact number.

  9. Hi R. T.--

    Glad you haven't forsaken the internet entirely. I shall go and see if you repented of abolishing the blog!

    I like the Petrarchan sonnet as well (and this one is definitely related to one of Petrarch's), though I tend to like all the variations. It's like "different flowers in odour and in hue," I guess. I like the terza rima sonnet, and all sorts of nonce sonnets.

    I promise you that I will not be memorizing 154 sonnets by Shakespeare. ;)


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.