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I wonder how many schools in America make the memorization of poetry a part of their curriculum these days. Do students still encounter the teacher who forces the class to digest a poem for the sake of a grade? In my case, in junior high, we were to memorize those most sorrowing lines from Macbeth. All of us consented to it, all of us did it better or worse—all but one of us, that is, who, without explanation, refused. Rather than descant, he decided to do a monologue as Shakespeare. Thus a fourteen year-old flannel-clad Bard of Avon strutted and fretted around the room, dignified despite the background titters, explaining why he had written the lines we were memorizing. Our teacher, not unmoved, nonetheless gave him a zero. Only one other poem has been imposed upon me in a similar manner: “Le Pont Mirabeau,” in a phonetics class, while I was a student in Paris. I still know it, and I like having it in my head. There is a benefit, chastening on one hand and exalting on the other, to having the better words of others knocking around inside the skull.
Similar benefits are attributed to mantras–a friend once told me, his voice serious, that his mantra was given to him by his guru upon their first meeting, and he has been reciting this bit of Sanskrit willingly for years, not entirely sure what it means. For my part, I prefer mantras of my own choosing to fill out my mental pockets. Good for long bus rides. Good for moments that test one’s composure. Or, of course, just because they’re fun to have and share. Memorizing poetry has social utility. A woman I used to know was in a bar many years ago. A snobby fellow in a turtleneck made an allusion to the Wife of Bath and then, for the woman’s benefit, condescendingly explained the allusion with a not entirely winning “not that a girl like you would know, but…” She proceeded directly to stand on a chair and recite the entirety of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English with all the flourishes, and was met by cheers. Turtleneck, tomato-red, turned heel.
Memorization is a habit of mind that we’re, of course, losing. We don’t need to remember anything anymore. One used to have phone numbers, addresses, recipes, birthdays, all manner of useful nonsense in mind. Less now. People who live in cities are said to be particularly at risk of mental dither, as a recent study claims. Meditation is something some seek out as a way of centering. Memorize a poem, I say, as bulwark against idiocy, sorrow, distraction, and gloom.
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”