Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Memory palace, no. 4

Courtesy of sxc.hu and Fran Priestly of the U. S.  That's a photograph
of her sister reading poetry--it could have been Yeats she read,
but, no, she is reading Tennyson. Of course, Yeats read Tennyson...

I've been busy with Glimmerglass edits, The Book of the Red King final polishes (long delayed), the always-tedious author questionnaire, and a bothersome cold, but today I am going to memorize another poem. This one is by Yeats; it's a lyric from The Wind Among the Reeds. I've heard "The Song of Wandering Aengus" sung many times, so it shouldn't be too difficult. And every time I've heard it read aloud with another poem by another writer, Yeats has managed to put the other poem to shame, despite or because of its simplicity of narrative.

Despite that simplicity, one can talk endlessly of elements like Aengus Óg and Caer, or Aengus Óg and hazel wands and faeries, and the meaning of solar and lunar or roundness and wholeness. But I've never thought that any of those explications, however charming and fanciful, did any more for the poem than the clear image of the poet with the fire to make the beautiful and true burning in his head, leading him on (though he may be never satisfied with his efforts to snare the uncatchable) to a mystical goal uniting all things--poet and muse, fire-to-create and transcendental fulfillment, male and female, sun and moon, gold and silver.

The poet gives his life and grows "old with wandering" until he, like Nathaniel Hawthorne's artist of the beautiful, "catches a far other butterfly" and is transformed. As Hawthorne puts it, "When the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality."

I love the opening of the poem and how Yeats brings together in one easy motion the realms of earth, air, fire, and water:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

I'm finding that I already know that stanza, probably from hearing and reading the poem so often. The only part I had any trouble remembering was "out to," which has a slight awkwardness, so that I kept wanting to alter it. Probably Thoreau was in my head as well, the man who says, "I went to the woods because," and his because is that he wants to live life deliberately, to suck out its marrow, and not find later that he has not lived. It's not so different from Aengus, called by fire and giving over all of life to a ruling pursuit. Thoreau, too, wonderfully mixes up stream and stars and time and fish: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."

I'm fooling with the second stanza now, and finding that my mind does not expect or want to remember a duplicate end word in floor:

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:

I just realized that there's a line in one of my Fool poems from The Book of the Red King that conjures this stanza of the poem for me, yoking fire and rustling: "When Fool walked in the rustling fire."

It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

I keep wanting to change "apple blossom" to "apple blossoms" to be a little more earthy and less poetique. Still, I love this poem, and it is, through and through, drenched in the romance of Celtic twilight. So "apple blossom" it is.

When I tried the last stanza without taking a peek, it turned out that I knew it, aside from one line, which my mind skipped over entirely, as if it were not essential to the narrative: "And walk among long dappled grass." I'm having a tiny bit of trouble with "among." Among grass? Metrically, yes, but...

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

I'm beginning to think that perhaps a poet should memorize each poem before concluding it is done. I don't imagine that I ever had much in the way of a negative thought about this poem before. (However, experience says that just because one publishes doesn't mean that a poem is polished to high gloss. I hate to admit it, but I've published poems online or in magazines that I later decided were simply not finished. And of course I felt mortified to think I had once thought them done. Time tells.) But Yeats is one of my heroes, and I rarely think of him as having less than a perfect finish.

Once I know the poem by heart and no longer pause to remember, I expect that I'll be back to my former happy state, not questioning these little decisions. But noticing tiny, almost-invisible snags is another interesting aspect to memorization.

7 comments:

  1. You surprise me. I would have thought all poets "memorized" all of their poems during the composition and revision process. How could you not know each and every syllable from beginning to end? I guess I have made false assumptions about the crafting of poetry.

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely RT. Have a head like a sieve, I would be in a pretty sad state had it been necessary to memorize each of my poems before committing it to paper!

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    2. I expect we often know the poem pretty well by the end, but tinkering can go on for a long time, even years. So it would be hard to know when to memorize the finished poem!

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  2. Nope, I don't think they do. No doubt I could memorize new ones pretty quickly because I've been over them with the fine-tooth comb. On the other hand, I've been over many versions of them, so maybe it wouldn't be that simple.

    Heard from some other poets via facebook, some of whom memorize poetry. One memorizes Shakespeare and some "killer" short poems. Another says she learned a good bit of poetry in school in Italy and has kept up learning poems. Haven't as yet seen a comment from a poet claiming he/she memorizes all her own.

    However, I have seen Dana Gioia intersperse memorized poems by others with his own memorized poems at the West Chester Poetry Conference. And there are podcasts where he does the same, or recites his own. I don't think I've seen anybody else do quite that, ever, and I've been to an awful lot of readings.

    But it seems like something worth doing--very different sense of performance. I could do that for shorter poems and passages...

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  3. I love this post Marly, not least because I too adore this poem, which seems to me like such a perfectly made object I could never improve on it. But it is interesting and provocative to see that memorizing it has allowed you to glimpse its tiny cracks.
    RE: "apple blossom," that is most likely dialect, I think, and "among" makes a certain kind of sense, though I would have expected him to say "grasses" rather than "grass." Had metrics not intervened.

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  4. I find it strange what one sees when memorizing--definitely you see more. I started wondered about the repeating name call after I wrote this... But the issues are certainly small.

    I am not sure whether I believe in achieved human perfection or in its achieved illusion and near-perfection.

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  5. I can't resist adding this silly little exchange from the facebook thread linked to this post... Took out the names, since I did not ask permission.

    Lovely post. I am delighted by the delight you take in poetry.
    20 hours ago · Like

    Ah, thank you so much! I am delighted by your delight in my delight!
    19 hours ago · Like

    Is it OK to say that I am delighted in your delight of John's delight in your delight of poetry?
    Memorization of poetry is admirable. It's an attractive to to be able to do.
    19 hours ago · Unlike · 2

    It is OK. I am delighted in your delight in my delight in John's delight in my delight in poetry.
    19 hours ago · Like · 2

    "Help! I've fallen into a mise en abyme of delight and I can't get out!"
    19 hours ago · Like · 1

    Life is so strangely recursive, sometimes...

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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.