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 February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
Post
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Article
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
Criticism
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

 
“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today