Memory Lane by Sheila Simonson

My mother got one of the first automatic dishwashers in the town I grew up in, which greatly enhanced her status.  We had to roll the washer over to the sink, hook it to the faucet, and turn the water on before we could set it going.  It worked, as long as we remembered to rinse the dishes off first and not put in sticky pans.  Before that, though, my brother John and I were the dishwashers for a family of eight.  John is two years younger than I am, and both of us loathed the after-dinner chore.  To keep ourselves from stabbing each other with forks, we recited poetry.  I don’t know how we started doing that, I just remember that we did, and that the poems, mostly narrative, were taken from a book called Poems for Enjoyment.  It was published in the 1940s, and when I spotted it on a few years ago I bought it like a shot.  Alongside the standard Great Poems it includes awful stuff nobody reads now, and it’s full of memories of sudsy water and scraped plates.

It’s been half a century since John and I started reciting our party pieces, but both of us can remember swaths of galloping stanzas.  After a couple of beers, we can even be induced to recite for our bored relatives.  It wasn’t until recently that I began to puzzle over why I could remember most of an undistinguished narrative poem by G.K. Chesterton that celebrated the long-forgotten battle of Lepanto.  Memory is a very strange thing.

Rhymed, metrical poems (and western song lyrics like the ones Camille quoted in her last blog) are full of tricks left over from preliterate culture.  Memory hooks.  Somewhere around 1919, as part of the social upheaval after World War I, English-speaking poets started tossing out the sound structure that had made language memorable.  By the 1960s, few serious poets bothered to learn rhyme or meter, but radio and TV advertising continued to create jingles that stuck in victims’ heads like the ten commandments.  “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent,” and so on.    A few elderly poets like Robert Frost continued to use the historical forms of English poetry, but most poets didn’t.  The result is that we remember Robert Frost, and most people no longer read the free verse, imagist poets who came after him.  I think that’s sad.  I also think it’s foolish.  We need poetry.

Here’s one of Frost’s poems that I am deliberately not going to look up.  I’ll screw up the punctuation and probably miss a word here and there.  This is from fifty year old memory:

     She is as in a field a silken tent

     At midday when the sunny summer breeze

     Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

     And its supporting central cedar pole

     That is its pinnacle to heavenward

     And signifies the sureness of the soul

     Seems to owe naught to any single cord,

     But strictly held by none is loosely bound

     By countless silken ties of love and thought

     To everything on earth the compass round,

     And only by ones going slightly taut

     In the capriciousness of summer air

     Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Much in the poem is visual, not auditory, and it’s only when you’ve smiled and thought ‘How sweet,’ that the word ‘bondage’  kicks you in the keister.  A great, frightening poem.  I remember the words, t hough, purely because of the sound patterns.

Which brings me to my point.  Should we as a culture go back to memory training of some kind?  I don’t think we can revive metrical rhymed poetry, but the thought of relying completely on our virtual memory banks, the fateful computers and data bases, freaks me out.  Are we going to trust Wikipedia for the truth?  Rabble-rousers of one kind or another lie blandly about what’s in the Bible or the Constitution, and nobody corrects them because we don’t REMEMBER.  They even lie about events everyone witnessed, like September 11 and Hurricane Katrina.  The population is aging too, so there’s the added problem of short-term memory loss.  I console myself by believing that when I can’t remember what happened yesterday, at least I’ll have Robert Frost to think about.

Happy holidays to everyone.



7 Responses

  1. A very evocative blog post, Sheila! I recently awed my 14-year-old granddaughter by reciting some of the Prologue to Canterbury Tales, which she’s studying in school. I used to wonder why we had to memorize poetry in school, but after 50 years I can still remember bits of Evangeline, The Bells, The Raven, etc. I understand that song lyrics, and poetry presumably, are stored in a different part of the brain from the usual short- or long-term memory storage vaults. So even if we get dementia eventually we’ll still be able to recite…

  2. I wholly agree. For years I memorized poems of every ilk–rhymed or unrhymed, and as a longtime English teacher, asked the same of my students. And I memorized long speeches from umpteen plays I’ve acted in. It’s such a joy, as you suggest, Sheila! And great exercise for the brain. Easier, yes, to remember rhymed poems, but how about all that blank verse Shakespeare? (Is this a dagger which I see before me / .the handle toward my hand? Come,/ let me clutch thee…” Every mystery writer should memorize these lines! (I may have messed up the line breaks,but these are the words.)

    • Yes, indeed, Shakespeare. It’s think iambic pentameter that does it, probably. We could ask actors whether they remember the unmetered scenes (lot of them in Hamlet) as well as Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt. I used to dream in iambic pentameter. Sheila

  3. Loved your post. We didn’t have a dishwasher but I remember wheeling a washing machine to the sink to hook it up. It didn’t rinse so that had to be done in the sink. I still remember many of the poems I learned in school including one called “The Yak” I can honestly say I have never had any use for this poem in my adult life, but still remember reciting it to my dad and will treasure that memory.

  4. This is such an interesting question, especially for a teacher. I’ve never given a quiz or test that required memorization — easier to accomplish when you’re teaching science. But I do value what memorization does for us and once tried to memorize a little paperback of “100 immortal poems.”

    Memorizing for the pleasure of recall seems a good thing; memorizing for tests, not so much.

  5. I needed some time to think about your provactive post. I teach one of those subjects, History, that requires students to acquire a certain body of facts, i.e. memorize, so that they can form and support a decent thesis. The first genereation of students that were not “left behind” – that is, were taught to a test, and do not get me started on that particular mess – have reached college. They can memorize, but what they can’t do very well is process the material they have memorized, crtically, independently. They might be able to repeat your Robert Frost poem, but would be unlikely to notice the word “bondage” or think about its implications unless it was one of the vocabulary words on a multiple choice test.

    • Having taught history at the college level, I would have to agree with you wholeheartedly. Memorization is by no means enough, nor does it insure the ability to think critically. I once had a freshman assure me (in writing on a test) that the French Revolution was greatly accelerated by that redoubtable lady, Rose Pierre. Sheila

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