Sentences — January 26, 2009, 5:38 pm

From Heel to Throat

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.

A goodie:

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Chance that a U.S. criminologist thinks abolishing the death penalty would increase the murder rate:

1 in 10

Villagers in Bangladesh found a missing woman halfway down a python’s throat.

The FAA announced it would investigate an 18-year-old Connecticut man who posted a YouTube video showing a homemade drone firing a handgun.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“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.”

Subscribe Today