Friday, September 28, 2007

Mother of Exiles

(This rather formless post has been taking shape, or rather losing shape, for the past couple weeks: I've found that at a certain point it's better to just post these things and let God sort it out.)

The day I was leaving for New York, I realized I had no poetry with me. I stopped in at Powell's, and bought, for six dollars, a book that I would not have been caught dead carrying back when I was in graduate school: Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize. It's the sort of book that academics view with distaste. Popular. Hackneyed. Accessible. A dreadful thing, as if poetry was something that just anyone might read and enjoy. I still remember the crushing snub delivered to a friend of mine, when she said she was writing a paper on Ezra Pound's early poetry. "Ah, yes," said a fellow student. He, of course, was writing about the Cantos. "Well... the early poems are more... accessible." He has since become a distinguished professor, with a slew of books to his name.* My friend has become the sort of obscure one-book professor who wins her college's teaching awards, and whose students actually learn to write.

I found I had already memorized about half of the poems in the book. But the first poem was a sonnet by Elizabeth Bishop, which I'd never read. About poetry, of course:

Oh for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead

"There is a deep love of poetry here," the Velveteen Rabbi once said of mole. And it's true. I wonder when it began? I didn't always love poetry. I used to think it tedious.

My father encouraged us to memorize poetry. He is not at all a literary man, but he has a fine reading voice and a good sense of meter. I remember him reciting "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." And one Christmas, with our Texas relatives -- after the wound of the Vietnam War had healed enough for us to visit them again -- my father and his younger brother astonished us all by reciting, not only "Paul Revere," but a poem spoken in the person of Dawes, who rode with Revere, lamenting that his name was too dull and ordinary to be immortalized in song. They nudged each other on, gradually recalling the stanzas as they went, each remembering different bits that would spark the memory of another couple lines in the other, till they had reassembled the whole poem.

They were the last generation of Americans who memorized poetry, in school and out of it, as a matter of course. Holidays for countless generations must have been marked by recitations of verse, in just this way. A stream that nourished us for millennia has run dry.

We had in our house Louis Untermeyer's Golden Treasury of Poetry, which This Girl recalled to my mind recently. The first poem that I memorized that was longer than a few lines was in that book -- Southey's singsong karmic parable, "The Inchcape Rock." I also memorized Longfellow's "Skeleton in Armor," at some point -- I have a notion my sister and I learned it together: I have a vivid, isolated memory of saying

And with my skates fast bound
Skimmed the half frozen sound
That the poor whimpering hound
Trembled to walk on.

in unison with her.

My sister loved verse, and committed it easily to memory; I remember her coming out with bits of Shakespeare frequently. As she sank under schizophrenia, in the months before her suicide, lines of King Lear, especially of Edgar playing the madman, would surface with horrifying appositeness.

Now a love of poetry has become part of my identity. In explaining who I was going to visit in New York, I found it easiest to say it was a gathering of people who share poetry, and who were putting a book together. The young woman who sat beside me on the flight from Portland to Chicago said: "Oh! Are you a poet?" And my first impulse was to say, "Heavens, no!" I waggled my hand in the Spanish "así así" gesture and muttered, "um, I write poems, sometimes." It was, after all, difficult to know what the question meant. Do I write poetry? Obviously. Am I paid for it? Not a chance. Do I think of it as my vocation? No.

But if people ask me what I do for fun, I sometimes say "I write poetry." I've been invited to participate in a poetry reading, in a couple months. I realized with surprise that there is no one in my life now from whom I would conceal that. I shall invite everyone I work with and everyone I go to school with. I may not be a poet, but I'm someone who writes poems sometimes, and I don't care who knows it.

Poetry ought to be spoken aloud, and it ought to be memorized. I know, I say this over and over, but I'm going to say it again. Poetry ought to be memorized, till it sings in your head of its own accord. Reading a poem silently -- well, there's an off chance that it will be apposite to the moment. But probably not. The deepest function of poetry is to be available when we are in the moment of need or desire. There's no time to lose then. When love or grief or despair are wringing your heart is no time to be rummaging in bookshelves looking for a half-remembered poem.

A memorized poem takes residence with us in a different way. It weaves into our experience, informing it and informed by it. It's a country we can visit at any time.

In New York, Beth read one of my poems aloud. Hearing your own verse on someone else's lips -- especially someone who reads beautifully and who understands it down to the ground -- is a wonderful and diquieting experience. Like Pygmalion seeing his statue come to life.

Bishop again --

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

One of the poems in my book, to my surprise, was a sonnet by Emma Lazarus. You may think you don't know this woman's poetry, but -- if you're American, anyway -- you're mistaken about that:

. . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .

The sonnet's about the Statue of Liberty. It gave a queer twist to my heart, to see that statue the next day, and to think of when this country was young and fearless, and committed to hospitality.

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.

She is no great poet, but poetry doesn't need to be great. It need not be fetishized and kept under glass, perfect and isolate. We give our words to each other because they're what we have to give.

*I am maligning him here: he was also a very kind and conscientious man, and he made wonderful Persian food to sustain us when we first had Tori home from the hospital. I remember him with great affection. But for him, as for many academics, the equation of "difficult to read" with "profound" was a given.

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