'Tis the season for reading aloud - so why not invite poetry to the party? !


There is no defense for excluding other seasons, but this is the time of year in which I most think of reading aloud - the joys that offers the reader and the read-to alike, the discoveries, the intensity, the connections of mind and heart that can enrich all involved.

That, in turn, brings up poetry. People read poetry for many reasons. It is easy to forget that the most potent original and continuing element of poetry is how it sounds. What's the music of poetry when you read it silently? Zenfriends notwithstanding, it is identical to the sound of one hand clapping.

It was therefore with a certain delight that I approached "Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize," edited by John Hollander (Books & Co./Turtle Point. 196 pages. $22.95).

In a brisk and crystalline introduction, Hollander, a professor of English at Yale and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets since 1981, makes a powerful point: To memorize a poem means inevitably to speak it, to recite it, to perform it. He applies that to an admonition that reading well, speaking well, expressing well have become decayed forms in modern life. So many voices today are dulled by mumbling, eroded by the semi-literacy of television news-readers and chat facilitators,corrupted by teachers who license vile usage on grounds of political agendas, polluted by politicians who seldom comprehend how to end a sentence.

Recitation envy

I have always envied people who can readily memorize, which has always been difficult for me. I am no help at all in explaining how to go about it. Certain people seem to come to it quite naturally. I have known people who can recite all the parts of entire acts of Shakespearian plays, apparently effortlessly. I knew one man who could do that, and did, and then switch to Moliere and do the same with an accent that could not be distinguished from that of a born-and-bred Parisian.

Going through "Committed to Memory," I found it impossible not to read aloud. Not perfectly, of course. For some of the poems I remembered not at all, and others were long-forgotten, meters were strange to my ear, and awkward to speak.

But as I moved along, the process became more comfortable, more engaging. I found myself reading everything aloud, alone in my living room, speaking the poems as if to an audience - precisely what Hollander encourages in his opening essay.

Reading the book one time through, I skipped bits here and there because poems were very familiar or because somehow they did not sing out. I went back to the pleasantest and flirted with the reading, wrestling with meter, tone.

Two hours, and then three, disappeared, consuming consciousness. I was sometimes puzzled, sometimes annoyed by obviousness: No amount of Christmas spirit can warm me to the platitudinous excesses of Edward Fitzgerald's "Omar Khayyam."

A few times I found myself raising my eyes from the page, remembering and reciting on, despite my dreadfully failed memorizing history. When did I learn it? What? The most obvious was Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." How old was I when I could do Kipling's "If" along with almost everybody else my age? How did I first become hypnotized by Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"?

The poems were selected by an advisory committee of thoughtful and literate people working with Hollander, a distinguished poet who has published 15 collections of his own work as well as several volumes of criticism and a number of anthologies. The section titled "Tales" is particularly marvelous - Frost's "Road," "Jabberwocky," Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," Shakespeare's "All the World's a Stage," Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-cat" - now there's a poem anyone could memorize

And, ahh, yes, Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat." Read it aloud and exult in loving baseball, in experiencing rhythm, in singing rhyme, in recognizing human frailty, living through rapture, deprivation, defeat, heart soaring, stomach aching. There is joy, if not in Mudville.

Nourishing evenings

I had a delightful time, that walk through, and then a second time. There are more active ways to spend a pair of evenings, but few that are pleasanter or, I believe somehow, more nourishing.

Is this great challenging, difficult poetry? No. Barely at all. Even John Donne's and Thomas Nashe's work from 400 and more years ago sing fresh. A few might strain your vocabulary, but not much.

All in all, they are rollicking, melodious, pleasing, provoking, and in many cases truly delicious. Some of the work is modern, though there is little free verse - on the argument that without rhyme or rhythm a poem is difficult to memorize. But neither is the fare superficial, there is work by Keats, Milton, Wordsworth, Auden, Dickinson, Ben Jonson, James Joyce, Poe, Whitman, Yeats, Melville, Shelley.

Any number of people, some wise, some fatuous, have suggested that there should be a minimum daily requirement: Listen to or play a moment of music, read a bit of poetry, look at and think about a serious piece of art. All regimens can be overdone, of course, but reading a few lines of poetry is good for the eye, the ear, the mind and the heart.

And what's more, unless you allow your brain to lie sodden and motionless throughout the process, reading poetry usually forces you to consider metaphor - specifically and thus in general. That is, of course, the most important discovery in all of lTC human existence, except perhaps for fire and arguably the wheel.

Now, there's a Christmas present.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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