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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Memory Palace and form-in-poetry rant--

rear cover image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
The Foliate Head
Oops

Thanks to my excessively courteous Southern upbringing and the disapproving glances of my ancestors, I eventually turned out to be a person who--once I'd grown up, which took me about 30 years--is probably a little too empathetic and who hates to hurt people's feelings and feels boiled in oil for weeks afterward if I accidentally do so. So I have to say that I am very glad that Nina Kang has such very different opinions from me because she has given me the chance (thank you!) to realize what my own are.

On the other hand, I feel guilty that her well-reasoned opinions are not mine, not in the least. I find my thoughts divergent in almost every respect from hers as displayed in "The Lost Art of Memorization" (Hat tip to Prufrock News.) I expect she stands with the majority, so perhaps my disloyalty won't bother her much if she ever wanders this way.

Memory Palace

I suspect Nina Kang started her attempt to memorize a poem without researching how people have memorized poems in the past. She failed at memorizing a poem, it seems, because she didn't think about those things and develop additional tricks that worked for her. It's not that hard if you use some of the tools developed over the centuries. And I'm sure Nina has a much younger brain than mine, which is no doubt shrinking on its way toward brain-oblivion. Here is a post where I talk about my memory palace plan and how I will memorize. Here is a list of my posts about memorizing poems.

I definitely don't agree that "memorization . . . is something our culture has largely evolved beyond." (And I expect that she doesn't either, really, ending her article with a moment of recitation that works on her like a spell.) If you read a poem, you lay some claim to it. But if you memorize a poem and it follows you over months and years, it becomes yours in an entirely different way. At surprising moments it will rise up in the mind, oddly congruent or oddly at odds with what goes on around you. It will console and surprise in a way that no poem on a page back at your house or on your laptop can do. You will also meet the poem more often and so understand in a more complicated way over time.

Reciting hurts poetry?

The purest, most effervescent distillation of hogwash-and-seltzer appears in these words against memorization:
In fact many argue today that recitation actively hurts poetry. Ron Silliman complains: “To recite a poem, one is required to have the whole of it in mind, to be ever vigilant as to one’s position—the way an actor has to be on stage—with all of its past and its future right at the surface of awareness. One is perpetually other than present with the text at hand.”
If you stay with a poem, if you repeat it over time and learn it thoroughly, this is not in the least what the mind experiences. Why should we take the word of people opposed to memorization? I see such sources as a real difficulty with this argument. Because I have a different experience memorizing poems. Eventually the mind knows the words so well that the poem can flood through the mind and body, and it is often experienced in a far more ravishing way than when read on the page. Sure, I find that at first and perhaps for a while, a difficult poem may have to be considered more carefully. When I hit "Sorrow's springs are the same," I still sometimes have to remember my clue to the knotty next: "Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed." (My clue is the "mouth" of a "spring.") Eventually I'll never need to jump to a clue and back. But when I have to use a clue, I go through the poem a second time, and then don't need the clue. It is now my poem, and I, like Thoreau and the apple fields, own it in a better way than others who may own field or book but have not taken its essence for their own.

Rather than being "other than present," I slide through the words like a mermaid through a sluice of current in the sea. I swim in them, and they are in my mind and mouth and all that I see. You know, I like that idea a great deal better than Silliman's "ideal of poetic 'mindfulness' where the reader can live in a sort of eternal present as the words wash over her." Why have a wave when you can have the ocean? "Mindfulness" is still fashionably hip, but in the case of poetry I prefer total immersion over a wash of mindfulness, and wish that I knew many more poems by heart than I do. Well, it's one of my 2014 projects, so we'll see what happens by year's end.

Suppress amateur reciters?

Ah, dear, human nature rising up again with all its passion! I do like to be kind and sympathetic, but I am afraid that I hate this attempt to suppress "amateur reciters."
Further damage can be dealt to a poem by amateur reciters (as opposed to actors) who may end up delivering the line in a singsong fashion, coercing the poetic line into a strict meter which may not be entirely natural. Thus a blank verse line from Hamlet, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” when recited, can take an exaggeratedly ta-TUM, ta-TUM quality: “Thus CON-science DOES make COW-ards OF us ALL.” The rhythm of that delivery compromises the meaning of the text by putting an unnatural stress on the words “does” and “of,” and causing us to mentally de-emphasize the more important words “make” and “us.” In fact, the whole question of meaning can recede into the background, since rote memorization can and often does accompany a lack of understanding of the poem’s actual meaning.
This idea is absurd. Let's take an example of children (the biggest amateurs of all.) When my daughter's fifth-grade class memorized poems (including pieces from Shakespeare's plays and poems by Kathleen Raine and Charles Causley and many more) that I had chosen for them, they were quite capable of delivering poems with force and gusto and without a hint of singsong. They sounded wonderful. They were proud of knowing their chosen poems, and they knew them inside out and had opinions about how they sounded and what they were about. Years later, my daughter could still recite Puck's song from MND and Raine's "Spell of Creation." Maybe she still can... I'll have to ask the young student of film and graphic novel some time. Take note of this: there was no exaggerated rhythm. There was no lack of understanding. Meaning did not wander off from the words like some unfortunate divided Siamese twin, or like a soul chopped from the body. Those children of ten and eleven felt words in their bones. So can you, if you take the trouble to memorize.

ta-TUM or the Castle of Indolence?

Kang sides with the idea that poets dislike meter and so write poems that are hard to memorize: "Unsurprisingly, then, many of today’s prominent poets seem to be writing poems that actively resist memorization." This assertion relates to the nonsensical idea that memorizers will go ta-TUM ta-TUM if they memorize metrical poetry. (My experience is that the more they memorize and recite, the less likely this is to occur.) The fact is that many of "today's...poets" write poems that will make the reader come a cropper when they try to memorize because it is very difficult to memorize what is sometimes--not always, of course, but it's true of all poets that most of our poems are not our best poems--slack prose broken into lines.

The modernists had formal verse in their bones and were still metrically dramatic and aware of the richness of sound when writing "free" verse; they broke their lines and rhythms against something known. Today's young writers are generations past that fruitful sundering. Too often new poets come of age in Tom Disch's Castle of Indolence (a term and title he borrowed from earlier poet James Thomson), not knowing their ancient, essential tools. You can't shatter form with power if you don't know form in the first place.

Bowdlerization as argument

Kang proceeds to break up some Ashbery lines, change words to be more archaic, and add rhyme and anapests to show what a bad decision formal verse would be; that's nonsensical, as all she does is bowdlerize some lines and then declare them some kind of proof of the weakness of a form that would allow better memorization. She finds the lines catchier but not as good and says, "But it also seems just bad."

Well, of course it's "just bad" (if not completely terrible) because it's not a made poem that came out of somebody's intense, charged play with words but a bowdlerized pseudo-poem! And those roly-poly anapests in the first line that she added have a built-in humorous swing that's wholly inappropriate to the subject. (Side note: The final line, “Into the chamber behind the thought,” does not "end with two dactyls and two iambs." "Into the / chamber / behind / the thought" can be read as dactyl, trochee, and two iambs.)

She does, however, prove that bowdlerizing an existing poem is a bad idea.

After giving us a bowdlerized non-poem to sample for its rhyme and meter, she declares that "we’ve developed a collective allergy to the 'ta-TUM ta-ta-TUM' of the strictly metered line; it makes us think of nursery rhymes and doggerel." Nina Kang, I confess that your bowdlerized non-poem does make me think of doggerel, as you intended it to do.

Another confession

I have something else to confess. I used to write free verse. All the time. I still do, now and then, when I feel as chained as Prometheus on the rock and charge at the sky. That's because the desire to break free now happens only when I've been writing a lot formal poems.

You say we've developed an allergy to the rhythm embodied in your bowdlerized poem. But you know what happened to me?

I got bored.

"Heavy bored," as Berryman's narrator said, long ago, in The Dream Songs.

I don't mind a bit or a whit that others (including Nina) did not become bored with their own free verse, but I tumbled into love with intricate sound and the drama of meter. It's just so darn much more interesting and powerful and fun to me. I'm not saying I can't enjoy any free verse; I'm saying that for me formal poetry became "the flashing & bursting tree!"

Your tree is something else? Fine. There's room. It's a big forest.

Tradition and moving forward

Sometimes, when an art form becomes fey and enervated, the only way forward is through the tradition. For me, my era just happens to be one of those times. Whether you believe that idea or not, the world contains many modes and many paths, including ones that point forward through the wilderness of the metrical past.

Access to power and larger life

Nina Kang says, "Unfortunately, that strict meter we dislike was a pretty valuable mnemonic tool." Yes, it was. And she says, "memorizing free verse poetry often feels like solving a crossword with only half the clues." She's right about those things.

But what she doesn't seem aware of is that the missing "clues" were a lot more than "mnemonic tools." They were access to power for those who could grasp and wield it, and also for many more now-forgotten writers who rejoiced in the attempt to dance the great dance of art with rhythm and song. Most writers, you know, are forgotten in time--most people are forgotten, along with any joy they pursued. But they pursued their joys with vigor in their time, I hope, and lived bigger lives because of them.

In fact, even now some of us are just not in love with the "intentionally haphazard text" and "deliberate awkwardness" of "today's prominent" (or not-prominent) poets but with the idea of combining forms with a voice that sings and speaks in the accents of our own time. And that's a greater, mightier, riskier challenge that any memorizing or writing of the "deliberately awkward" and "haphazard."

Knowing your tools

To any young poet, I would say that no matter what sort of poetry you want to write, you must know your tools. Any artisan should be known and judged first by a basic mastery of his or her tools. Be known by no less. If you don't know your tools, you're nothing but a naked Empress of a performance artist--just another in a rather long, dull line of "artists" thrusting or pulling or spitting or unreeling something or other out of one or another artifice-orifice--a naked human being plopping paint-filled "eggs" out of your vagina and calling it art. Know your tools, no matter what and how you want to make, no matter how you want to stand in relation to the tradition from which you spring... Know that tradition.

Then take joy in creation.

18 comments:

  1. I am glad you've chosen to share your views here, taking the chance you'll step on someone's toes.

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    1. I don't mind lots of different views, but some do! Just as I like many sorts of poems, I suppose...

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  2. Good heavens. You're not present with a poem when you're reciting it? What effing nonsense. If you really know a poem, you can wake up in tears murmuring the lines you began in your dream: your mind slows down to inhabit the poem -- or the poem slows down to inhabit your mind -- in ways that never happen when you just scan it rapidly, with your eyes skittering over the surface of the text. You can take a dance down in notation, too: do these people feel that the only way experience a dance in the moment is to scan the dance notation? Of course there's awkwardness when you're *first* learning a poem, just like there is when you're first learning a dance. These folks are reporting the experience of failed memorization, not of successful memorization.

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    1. Oh, that's a lovely way to put it. I like the description of the dream-awakening. Nothing more lovely and aching than a poem in a dream.

      She seems to imply that memorization is no longer possible as a normal human activity because it's so hard to memorize free verse. Of course that's true. But maybe it's a reason why, when you do meet someone who knows poetry by heart, they often know older poems. Though I note that people in theatre seem to manage contemporary free verse just fine.

      I put up links to this and the essay on a forum for formal poets and am interested in what they say--she has one defender so far. Lots of good comments.

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  3. I agree with you two that memorization is the root of poetry. It's how poets got started, and it's still quite the way to learn a poem, not just its words, but its meaning as well.
    One never quite grasps a poem as well just reading it on the page.

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    1. I've been very interested in the comments on the forum on this piece, and one included this: "Mnemosyne - Memory - MOTHER of the muses."

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  4. The writer of that piece seems well intentioned, but her generalizations about what "we" like and don't like strike me as woefully behind the times. Last year, Disney and Caroline Kennedy teamed up to publish a book called "Poems to Learn by Heart." I'll write a blog post about it when I have a moment, but suffice it to say that a media powerhouse detected a popular interest in memorization, and most of the poems in the resulting book are either recognizably formal or at least aware of the traditions and tools of the art. At the moment, the proponents of free verse are the conservatives (even reactionaries) in this (hopefully) friendly debate.

    Like you, Marly, I used to write a ton of free verse; form gave me the focus to write something that on occasion, others might actually enjoy reading. (Two hours ago, I got a purchase order from the National Cathedral gift shop for another box of my books. I guess I've done something right...)

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    1. Yes, I think she does mean well...

      Oh, I'd heard of that book but have never taken a look.

      It does seem that the wildest thing one can do is to defy what has come in the wake of modernism and write in forms.

      Ah, that's a good order! Having an interesting outlet like that is so helpful.

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  5. A wonderful rebuttal to the article, and I love your description of the joys of memorization. I've actually composed poems in my mind, requiring memorization of them in-process (due to lifestyle constraints), or sometimes parts of longer poems. These poems usually turn out better.

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    1. Hello, Siham--

      I wonder how many poets in the 9-5 job world (of course, most of them seem to be in the academy these days) write and memorize in their heads...

      Interesting that those are the better poems. Perhaps we should all be forced to mull lines in the mind from time to time! It seems a thing that would require practice not to keep spilling lines out of our heads.

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  6. Thanks to the many Sphereans who have left comments on their home forum--very surprised to have so many, though not that they are so thoughtful and sometimes funny!

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  7. At my readings, I recite, not "read".

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    1. I really, really like that idea! And would definitely like to move into doing that myself, if my brain is not too recalcitrant at this late age... I have been memorizing poems, though not my own--shall get to that eventually, I hope.

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  8. Thanks for this critique. It means a lot to me that you read the essay to its end and engaged with it deeply, when so many read the title and subtitle and moved on (this is my first essay published in the internet age, so it was a surprise to me - I'm told that was a naive reaction).

    The fact that you use the quote "heavy bored" makes me feel like we are kindred on some level. Dream Song #14 (? no time to double check) was actually the epigraph to the second section of the article, which focused on oral poetry, but which I had to cut for space reasons; it was to indicate the absolute necessity for inner resources, which you and I agree on. There were other sections touching on my own memorization of Chinese poetry as a little kid in Singapore, and on language poetry (which I personally can't stand but my dear friend Ray has read heavily in), and on the abject failure of standard mnemonics like memory palaces to work for me, which never saw the light of day.

    Kudos on spotting the trochee in the doggerel. Fair point to you. And I fear it wasn't at all clear, in the final published version of the piece, with what skepticism I view both the Silliman argument and the misplaced cadences argument; they are supposed to serve as straw men to balance out my conclusion.

    Out of curiosity, is the "Nina Kray" you refer to also supposed to be me? Is it an allusion to something I haven't quite missed?

    Warmly,
    N

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    1. Hello, Nina--

      So glad you came by!

      Oh, dear--I renamed you. I'm always doing that to people. I just renamed a woman Adele! I shall fix it... I don't know why I do that, but I do it often. I renamed a neighbor "Linda" when her name was "Pat." It must be the novelist part of me, trying to convert human beings into characters.

      Yes, I think that the essay was a wee bit wandering and needed more clarity about your stance and arguments. But it was interesting and ... a first. No doubt there will be many more.

      Good cheer,
      Marly

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    2. Whew. I only did it once... Hope I didn't miss another! You're lucky I didn't name you something absurd. Puddleglum. Peabody. Kettledrum.

      Nina, are you a poet, then? If you have poems on line, send me a link...

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    3. Heh, I'm a poet, but not exactly a published one. Yet! Your site is inspiring. Curiously, the Palace at 4 am is one of my favorite sculptures of all time as well.

      - Bungbone

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    4. Well, keep at it. Writing is one of life's strange pleasures...

      Glad you like the site--I can be lazy at times, of course.

      That sculpture stuck in my head at an early age. I think that's why it popped up immediately when I was thinking of a name. Long acquaintance with the weird hours of the night and the palace as mental cave...

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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.