- 9:06 am - June 22, 2012
- 8 notes
“This possessing of poems may have benefits, but probably not social ones. You might impress people at certain parties, but they’re likely just literary types, and trying to impress that bunch is what got me into this manual-labor mess. Or so I’ve heard myself say as I’ve pondered, while clinging to some icy, skinny beam with my fingers, how differently life might have turned out if I’d studied harder for my chemistry final instead of pulling an all-nighter on that Yeats paper. On the other hand, I dared once to start reciting W.H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” on a construction site, because the young guy dragging welding cables with me was mouthing one of Eminem’s clever raps. After a couple of lines, I saw Auden wasn’t matching my partner’s Red Bull rhythms, so I switched over to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The kid wasn’t listening to that ancient stuff either, but it didn’t matter, because the floor grinders started their machine and nobody could hear anything.
So I still haven’t impressed anyone beyond family, but reciting from memory has other benefits. A good solid poem in your cortex can be almost like ballast in a ship’s hold. If turbulent mental activity surges, speaking a poem to oneself can be a way to even out the waves…
But pleasure may be the main reason I keep memorizing poems. The intense familiarity of a work known by heart allows happy moments of sensing the poem as a whole and in details. This pleasure is not simply the kick of solving a puzzle, nor my ironworker affinity for structure. There is also pleasure in sounds and rhythms, even the mouth pleasure of “unintelligible multitude.” But at its best the experience of a good poem has to do with trying to apprehend a deeply known truth that another person could communicate only with a precise set of words.”
—Josh Warn, “On the Road with Wallace and Wystan,” from Poetry Magazine (June 2012)
(Photo: Wallace Steven’s handwritten draft of “The Virgin Carrying a Lantern,” from the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)