Memory and Mimesis, Fear of

Yesterday, I was reading a few essays out of Radiant Lyre, a book of essays on lyric poetry that I've had lingering on my desk for some time, having every intention of reading it asap until I got derailed by some NY school poets. It happens. In any case, one essay on rhetoric in erotic poetry (think Shakespeare and Donne) touched on one of the first and few poems I have memorized - namely, Sonnet 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments...)

I confess that I memorized the sonnet almost entirely because of its use in Ang Lee's take on Sense and Sensibility and thus have absolutely no remaining credibility. But really, I had none to begin with, because reader, this poem is one of THREE total that I've managed to memorize, from 6th grade till age 27. From a non-poet perspective, this might seem rather odd, contradictory - that I should love an art so much and be so disinclined (at best) or unable (at worst) to commit bits of it to memory. However! Many poets, especially contemporaries, will know that it is not uncommon to run across a poet with an equally abysmal repertoire (they may even *gasp* have such a repertoire themselves.)

I can still recite sonnet 116 quite handily and do a nice dramatic reading of Poe's "El Dorado" (it's uncharacteristically buoyant for Poe, which is I think what drew me to it as a 6th grader...that and the rhymes make for easy memorization.) Later in grad school, at the (wise) behest of one Joan Larkin, I memorized Sexton's "The Truth the Dead Know" after hearing a poignant recording of Sexton herself reading the piece. Unfortunately, I can't say as I remember more than the first couple of lines now.

I don't think that it is sheer laziness that keeps me from memorizing, I think it is:

1) my aversion to rote learning and the attendent (and false) assumption that memorizing a poem is indeed a form of rote learning;

2) my somewhat irrational fear that my own voice will be reduced to a mimetic rebroadcast of all the things I've memorized. With this fear comes another false assumption that my voice is now completely my own and at least not directly informed by everything I've heretofore read; and

3) dammit, I AM lazy. I need to kick myself into gear. People once memorized the Illiad and the Odyssey. Entire epics - the equivalent of thousands of pages - rolled off the tongues of many a troubadour. To musical accompaniment, no less. The least I can do is memorize a little poem every once in a while. It would do me good.

SO, In the interest of amending my once secret shame of rarely committing anything to memory and, perhaps more importantly, in the interest of SLOWING myself and my consumption of poetry, for better intellectual digestion, I mean to memorize a poem a week. For as long as I can keep up with it, I suppose. Short of making videos of myself reciting these poems blindfolded (a cute idea, actually, though I don't fully trust myself to go to that much trouble and would not want to disappoint my legion of fans), you'll just have to take my word for it. Or if you're in the neighborhood and would like a performance, I will be happy to indulge.

I will try to speak to how memorizing certain poems has affected my writing (or not writing) as well. And, as we're already nearly midway through the week, I'm going to cheat a little and re-memorize that Sexton poem as my first assignment.


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