Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How the light gets in #NPM17

On day four of National Poetry Month, the suggestion is, to celebrate, we should "Memorize a poem." Do you remember the last time you memorized a poem, song, or even lines from either? It wasn't all that long ago that I, stumbling onto a partial antidote to my perfectionist tendencies, memorized these lines from the late Leonard Cohen's Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.  

how the light gets in
how the light gets in
Photo by J. Harrington

Memorization was a big part of "learning" when I was in grammar school and even into high school, where I studied Latin and Greek (the ancient version), which meant memorizing vocabulary, syntax, grammar. "All Gaul is divided into three parts."  I can, on a good day, still handle the multiplication tables but find little poetry in numbers. Later, I started to use word processing and lost some of my vocabulary and much of my ability to spell words. Spreadsheets helped diminish my ability to do math in my head. Then came the internet and no reason to memorize anything ever again, because I could always "Google it."

Has it occurred to you that it's only possible to Google what someone else has already created and written down? Originality, creativity, can be looked up on the internet only after a human heart, mind and soul has produced it. The good folks at the Academy of American Poets provide a back story to memorizing poetry. As you read part of its introduction below, think about what computers and the internet are doing to us, as well as for us:
In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates tells a story about the invention of writing, in which the Egyptian god Thoth shows his written characters to another god, Ammon, who rebukes him: “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves.” There were stories and songs—and songs that told stories—long before there was any writing, and they were kept alive not in libraries but through a cycle of reciting, listening, memorizing, and reciting anew. Each language drew on its own resources of sound structure for the aural patterns—the kinds of rhythm and repetition of sounds, words, phrases, and kinds of phrase—that made spoken poetry sound very different from ordinary discourse and, in particular, easier to commit to memory.
 The story Socrates tells has more truth to it than I'm comfortable with. I think I need to memorize the rest of Mr. Cohen's wonderful song, so that I can help keep it alive. Latin is a dead language because no one speaks it any more. For some insight into the differences between song and poetry, here's a link to Paul Simon's musical version of Robinson's poem. Repetition helps memorization.

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked,
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich--yes, richer than a king--
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.


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