Why are some poems easier to learn by heart than others? It cannot be simply a matter of simplicity and regular rhythms and rhyming, for sometimes the latter are the hardest of all to master. I found this out a few years ago when I set out to learn Robert Lowell’s poem “Mr. Edward and the Spider.” The poem flows with passionate intensity as the poet–who converted to Catholicism during his first marriage, and later abandoned both–describes a sinner confronting an eternity in hell.
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason cracking in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
Such passion is unsettling and perhaps agitates the neurons in the brains or dampens the firing of the synapses, though for staying awake on the road, driving at night, it is ideal. Bruno Bettelheim describes in On Learning to Read: The Child’s Fascination with Meaning how emotions can at this micro level get in the way of learning, and there’s a least one passage in “Mr. Edwards” which sometimes still gives me trouble:
. . . This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning. . .
Intellectually, I understand “sinews” as a verb, but at some level my mind resists this passage. Maybe because during an important part of my life I sometimes abolished my own will, and I am troubled by the reminder. And I think with sadness of Lowell’s last days when at times his great illness utterly abolished his own will, with consequences that hurled him into a place full of burning.
Different challenges arise for me in learning Thomas Hardy’s magnificent and moving late-in-life poem “Afterwards.” The language, of course, is not always ours, and it is voluble and sometimes round-about in a decidedly un-modern way.
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One my say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’
A variant of that “one may say” in the third line comes up in each of the poem’s five stanzas in one way or another, and differentiating them, stanza to stanza, requires an unabolished will. As I learn and re-learn the poem, I address Hardy: Why do you say it this way, not that way? What is the necessity of this phrasing of another? Until I remember he was the son of a carpenter and fiddler in rural England in the last century, and in the one before that; and though he must have felt it when the Nobel Prize went to George Bernard Shaw, and he was passed over, he did not seem to seek the precision of the gods or expect stardom. In that, too, perhaps, he is not modern.
Learning Wallace Stevens’ “The Auroras of Autumn” is quite a different experience from learning and reciting Lowell; Stevens’ lines and images, even when opaque, seem to flow from some subterranean stream that has been seeping into the poet’s consciousness over a long time. There is a stately inevitability in them:
This is where the serpent lives, this is his nest.
These forests, these hills, these tinted distances,
these trees above and along and beside the sea.
This is form gulping after formlessness,
Skin flashing to wished-for disappearance,
The serpent body’s flashing without the skin.
The second stanza, above, gave more trouble than the first with its formidable gulping and flashing. There are still one or two places where my mind grapples with Stevens’ language; his base and pole, for example, gave me a bit of trouble, quite irrationally:
This is the height emerging and its base
This light may finally attain a pole
and find the serpent
Despite this, “The Auroras of Autumn”, appropriate to a woman in her autumn, is often the poem I turn to on a sleepless night to ease my way into sleep.
Another day, I may write about three poems that work, in me at least, in quite different ways.