Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Voice Of Poetry In The Conversation Of Mankind

Alicia Stallings
I've been thinking a lot about poetry over the last week or so. Attending that Sinead Morrissey poetry reading in Belfast probably started the ball rolling, although I've always been fascinated by poetry and the lives of the poets. As is standard Irish practice (or at least it was in my day) we began memorizing huge quantities of verse from the age of about 11 onwards, and tucked away in my head, are half a dozen Yeats poems as well Shakespeare's sonnets, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Robert Frost, Auden etc. Like any sensible person I stopped memorizing poetry once I left high school but I started again a couple of weeks ago as a sort of new year's resolution. A poem a week for the year is my plan and so far I've given myself some relatively simple stuff that rhymes and is straightforward to remember:

Week 1: And The Days Are Not Full Enough - Ezra Pound (which I've reproduced below in full just to show you how easy this game is)


And the days are not full enough,
And the nights are not full enough,
And life slips by like a field mouse,
      Not even shaking the grass. 

Week 2. I Died For Beauty - Emily Dickinson
Week 3. Cut Grass - Philip Larkin
...
Why memorise poems? Well it's fun for one thing. And poetry is an important way of looking at the world. I didn't study English literature in college but I did study philosophy and was impressed by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott who wrote a famous essay entitled, The Voice Of Poetry In The Conversation Of Mankind, which was a sort of plea for the liberty of poets to pursue their vision and their method in a busy age of science and 'progress'. The essay isn't online anywhere that I can find but it's worth reading if you can find the book "Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays" where it appears.
...
A few weeks ago an old friend of mine Alicia Stallings sent me her latest collection of poems called Olives. Alicia is the only professional poet that I know. She's won numerous prizes, including the prestigious Guggenheim "Genius" Fellowship. Olives is a beautiful collection of verse, sui generis, but perhaps influenced by the likes of Anne Carson and other neo classicists. Alicia was born in Athens, Georgia and lives in Athens, Greece which I imagine is as fine a place as any for a working poet. 
...
I hope this little blogpost has got you thinking about poetry too. Why don't you try and memorize a short poem today? Trust me it's not difficult and you'll do yourself a world of good. You could even write some poems. (Don't worry if you can't think of anything, never forget what Roger Ebert said "the muse visits during the writing process not before.") If you want to read some good poetry nothing could be easier as most of the famous dead poets are online in various different places, here, for example. Of course you can get the Oakeshott, Stallings and Sinead Morrissey books at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk but maybe even better you could order them for your local library and let the librarians know that there is a section of the public still out there who recognize the importance of poetry in the great conversation of mankind. 

34 comments:

Deb Klemperer said...

4A lovely idea! Stress leaves my memory shattered, so this could build it up again.

Wilfred Owen (introduced at school) got me, it was the first time I'd been really struck by a poet's skill. I have never learned any by heart, perhaps I'll start with a verse at a time from 'Exposure' - "Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens."

Cary Watson said...

I used to memorize (and then forget) chunks of Shakespeare; one of my favorites was Richard II's "Come, let us tell sad stories about the death of kings" speech. I've always felt slightly guilty about not reading poetry, and now you've made me feel even guiltier. Time to drag out the Oxford Book of English Verse. One poem that I discovered a long time ago that's always stuck with me is the The Changeling by Charlotte Mew. I still get a chill when I read it. Here's a link to it at Poemhunter.com.

adrian mckinty said...

Deb

Wilfred Owen is good. I like that troika: Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg. Of course Owen was Mrs Thatcher's favourite poet so that queers the pitch a little.

Did you ever read those Pat Barker novels? Good stuff..

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

That was a new poem to me. Very creepy and good with a vibe a bit like Goblin Market.

Quite the tragic life for Ms Mew: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Mew

Deb Klemperer said...

Just Union Street, why? Visceral, really disturbing, couldn't stop thinking about it, brilliant. Can't now say why I haven't read more.

Owen's poems are exceptional, don't care if Mrs Thatch likes em or not..

I campaigned in the street during the 1979 General Election - for 'The Ecology Party' (I was breaking out of a Tory upbringing) you can see me in the party political broadcast.

Do you know this one from Marvan, brother of king Guare of Connaught?
"I have a shieling in the wood, None knows it save my God, An ash-tree and a hazelnut Its two sides shut, great oak-boughs roof it.

Two heath-clad posts beneath a buckle Of honeysuckle its frame are propping, The woods around its narrow bound Swine-fattening mast are richly dropping.

From out my shieling not too small, Familiar all, fair paths invite me; Now, blackbird, from my gable end, Sweet sable friend, thy notes delight me.

With joys the stags of Oakridge leap Into their clear and deep-banked river, Far off red Roiny glows with joy, Muckraw, Moinmoy in sunshine quiver.

With mighty mane a green-barked yew Upholds the blue; his fortress green An oak uprears against the storms, Tremendous forms, stupendous scene.

Mine apple-tree is full of fruit From crown to root--a hostel's store-- My bonny nutful hazel-bush Leans branching lush against my door." The intense love of nature is timeless, hard to believe he lived 1400 years ago



Cary Watson said...

I'd forgotten how grim Mew's life was; the very definition of the tortured artist.

adrian mckinty said...

Deb

Thats a new poem on me. I like it a lot. Where did you come across it? Its not in the Tain is it?

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

You wouldnt wish it on your enemy.

Sheiler said...

I have short-term memory issues (concussion when I was younger) so the notion of memorizing lines has irked me, frightened me. But I'm no longer in school. I don't have to don a blue wig and run around telling children about where your water comes from (for videos). So maybe this would be a good practice. I mean, I usually wake up with a line from a song in my head anyway. Why not make it a poem? When I heard that Anselm Hollo was in the hospital, my first thought was a line from one of his poems, "Weird with tears". I didn't even know it was stored there from 15 years ago until it got 'called up'.

Deb Klemperer said...

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32030/32030-h/32030-h.htm#Page_47

I first read Marvan's poem - or rather (now I find out) colloquy when I was 20, while I was living in a simple cottage on Bredon Hill, undeveloped since around 1900, and it really struck a chord with me. I didn't realise until today that it was such a long piece of work - see link above (with a very different translation from the one I posted earlier)

seana graham said...

I enjoyed that poem too, Deb.

I've been thinking a bit about poetry myself in the last couple of days. I have a fairly contradictory relationship to it. On the one hand, I've read the book length poem in sonnets of Vikram Seth called Golden Gate and enjoyed it, and pretty much all the book length poetry of Robinson Jeffers. But I continue to have sort of an aversion to shorter poetry. Not that I don't like it or even love it when I am shown something good, but that I am rarely drawn to seek it out. I think it might be akin to math anxiety in others--a kind of panic sets in that I won't get it.

America too had a strong tradition of memorizing poetry until just the generation before mine. I know this because some of the older people in a discussion group I go to will occasionally start reciting it--Yeats or someone like that, stuff they learned when they were young. It was not part of the program at school at all when I was a kid though. Sometimes they would talk about poems or poetry and actually we wrote a fair amount, but we didn't learn to memorize and recite it.

I did try to memorize poetry for awhile when I was twenty or so. I don't retain much from that experiment beyond "In an island of bitter lemons, where the moon's cool fevers burn" by Lawrence Durrell. And even that I just looked up because I had it slightly wrong.

I was thinking about poetry first because I read an interesting interview with Susan Howe in the latest Paris Review. I kind of avoided it because I didn't know her and also because of the poetry angle, but it was fascinating stuff.

And then, I was at the memorial service of a writing instructor up at UCSC who I knew through the bookstore. His wife wrote a very lovely poem about him which was printed in the front of the order of service, and there was more poetry interlaced through the afternoon. Amateur poets, but also Neruda and Shakespeare. It was all pretty great for a sad occasion.

Alan said...

Adrian thank you for the task.Two years ago my wife and I visited an old childhood friend in Amien.We were taken to an evening "Sound And Light"performance outside the very imposing and majestic gothic cathedral in the town center. We sat on raised stone amphitheater benches as spotlights flashed over the Cathedral facade illuminating Saints and other religious icons.Suddenly loudspeakers reverberated from different sides of the gallery and a voice spoke Chaucer's prologue to the "Canterbury Tales" announcing the arrival Spring and the eruption of faith and I felt clearly after many long years your "Conversation Of Mankind". Best Alan New Mexico

adrian mckinty said...

Sheiler

Well short term memory problems could make memorising poetry more of a trial than a pleasure admittedly, but still the brain is a malleable organ and I'll bet you could impress the words upon it somehow...

adrian mckinty said...

Deb

Wasnt Bredon Hill where they found all that Roman Gold recently? If you only you'd be walking around with a metal detector in your youth...

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Neruda's interesting to me. Years ago I tried to learn Spanish by memorising Neruda. It was a foolish plan but a few chunks of verse are still stuck in my head.

Later I tried the same plan with Lorca and that worked a little better, especially from his amazing Poet in New York, which I think captures the city perfectly.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

I like how contemporary Chaucer is once you get past the vocabulary. Bawdy, vulgar, profane. When I get 1 star reviews on amazon or especially audible.com and they hate my books because of the language I always think to myself - Jesus you're an ill read ignorant eejit, you need to read some Chaucer if the work "shit" scares you so much.

seana graham said...

I'll look for that Lorca. Actually, I won't vow to memorize poems just yet, but I will attempt to read more of them.

Here is a poem ABOUT Neruda that someone read yesterday at one point. Surprised to be able to find it on line. (There was also a Neruda poem at the end.) It was brought home to us more vividly by the fact that our vanished friend was represented by a cafe table and empty chair on stage.

seana graham said...

The link didn't work. Here it is.


http://www.wisconsinacademy.org/magazine/how-i-met-pablo-neruda

Deb Klemperer said...

Roman debased silver coins - but a lot of them! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bredon_Hill_Hoard

I was on a dig near Bredon Hill in the mid-late 1970s - found lots of Iron Age pottery, an Iron Age roundhouse, and a baby's skeleton .. (hard to excavate the delicate bones). I have never used a metal detector, though have worked with detectorists for over 20 years (recording their finds). Archaeologists are not allowed to claim any reward under the rules of the Treasure Act.

Deb Klemperer said...

Seana, I dip in and out of poetry - I don't know why, because I enjoy the experience when I take the plunge. And then I don't look at a poem for months.

I was admitted to the Society of Antiquaries of London (http://www.sal.org.uk/) just over a year ago. The day included a tour of the fabulous library collection (open to the public by appointment), with a sample of wonderful works laid out for us newbies to examine. The highlight for me was being allowed to hold a large marbled ledger containing a handwritten History of Nithsdale, complete with delicate watercolours. Two back pages were taken up with a poem in untidy scrawl, signed Robbie Burns..

seana graham said...

Oddly enough, Peter Rozovsky and I were just talking about the limitations of viewing documents over on his blog. You are very lucky to be able to handle rare things like that, although personally, I would be terrified.

seana graham said...

While on the hunt for something esle I happened upon this post by Brad Leithauser, which seemed relevant.

Peter Rozovsky said...

By coincidence, I mention poetry in my current blog post, specifically the unusually readable renderings of the poems in my version of Egil’s Saga. And I should resume my recent practice of reading one or two of David Hinton’s translation of the Tang Dynasty poet Meng Hao-jan before bed.

In re old documents, I was astonished when in Rome by the ease with which I could walk into the Biblioteca Veneziana and browse a book of drawings of Trajan’s Column from 1508. I enjoyed noting the names of the prominent scholar who had studied the book before I did.

R.T. said...

I wonder what would happen if I were to ask students to memorize poetry in my literature classes.

Poetry, of course, lends itself to memorization. In its most ancient forms, much of it was not written but transmitted orally (e.g., Homer's epics). Meter and rhyme were originally aids to memorization.

In the conventions of Elizabethan drama, blank verse--for all of its reasons for existence--was a form that aided actors.

Also consider the French villanelle. If a person cannot memorize one of those, that person has no ability at all for memorization. (As an English example, consider Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night.")

Sheiler said...

I loved that there were slackers in Chaucer's time (albeit a slekker I think is how it was spelled). Loved Golden Gate too.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I bought a book of poems by Paul Celan today (He's on the shelves between Cavafy and Chaucer, which makes C a pretty good letter for poetry). Naturally I turned to "Death Fugue" first. I imagine that will stick with me for while.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Indeed.

For your next big book you might want to look into Vasily Grossman...

Peter Rozovsky said...

He might be a good choice for my next novelist/journalist, after Joseph Roth.

As is, I'm reading An Ermine in Czernopol, whose author I think shares a hometown with Celan. Then I read a story by Ingeborg Bachmann from that Tales From the German Imagination book and found out that she was born in Musil's hometown and had a "tempestuous" affair (are literary affairs ever anything but tempestuous?) with Paul Celan. So I'm in a bit of a Bukovina-Austro-Hungarian rut.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and I want to read White Teeth, too.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'd read Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude before Zadie Smith's White Teeth if I were you. Both do a similar trick of taking one area of a city (London and Brooklyn) and looking at it from the 70's to today. I like Smith and White Teeth is a good book but I think Fortress of Solitude is a masterpiece.

Peter Rozovsky said...

But I like the opening of White Teeth. In any case, I logged on to say that there must be some poetry kharma out there. I rummaged for stamps to pay some bills and came up with a sheet of stamps honoring twentieth-century poets, complete with short poems or excerpts printed on the back.

seana graham said...

Yes, the opening of White Teeth is wonderful.

Peter Rozovsky said...

And I'm an impatient reader and a sucker for good openings. But the edition of The Man Without Qualities that I've been reading, oddly enough, offers a much more prosaic rendering than the previous translation's wonderful version of the novel's first sentence: "There was a depression over the Atlantic."

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