Memory: 'a great wonder of human existence'

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • November 20, 2014

I recently discovered the Atlantic’s “By Heart” series, which interviews prominent authors about their favorite passages in literature. Of particular interest to me are the instances where writers share poems that they have committed to memory. In one recent entry, bestselling poet Billy Collins told the story of how he relieved his anxiety while receiving an MRI by reciting William Butler Yeats’s early lyric “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” again and again, until it became “a kind of diagram to focus on.”  In another entry, fiction writer Aimee Bender discusses her own poignant experience of memorizing Wallace Stevens’ “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” after she heard it read at a funeral. 

Anecdotes like these and others on the Atlantic’s website move me because I too know the great satisfaction and spiritual renewal that comes from possessing a poem by memory. I still remember the first poem I learned by heart, William Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” which is short enough to quote in its entirety: 

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.  

I must have been 12 or 13 when I stumbled upon this chilling lyric while paging through Harold Bloom’s anthology, The Best Poems of the English Language, in my hometown’s public library. Though its sexual implications were lost on me then, I loved it for its compression and the darkness of its imagery. 

I don’t recall the moment that I “mastered” “The Sick Rose,” and never thought much of it until last year, when I began to read poetry more widely and seriously than I ever had before. It was a difficult and emotionally exhausting time in my life; I felt at times that I was reading and memorizing poems less out of enjoyment than out of deep spiritual need. As Collins attests, a memorized poem is like a companion, an inner resource one can draw on in times of distress and joy alike.

To most Americans, however, poetry is all but worthless. This is to be expected in a time when someone like Steve Jobs is viewed as a cultural hero. And yet the scores of new Apple products being released each year to draw our attention away from literature only encourage me to read and memorize more poems, because verse provides me with a particular combination of spiritual solace and intellectual stimulation that I cannot find anywhere else. Poetry, as the great 20th century poet Robert Hayden once said, remains a mysterious thing, and our increasingly pragmatic and fast-paced world is often lacking in mystery.

When I encounter a truly great poem, I feel that I am in the presence of something larger than myself, and this is as it should be; works like Shakespeare’s sonnets or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s magnificent elegy “Adonais” have stood the test of time because people continue to find meaning in them. Poetry, more than any other literary genre, is concerned with language, and great poets consider the denotations, connotations, sounds and rhythmic effects, and historical weight of every word they write. This means that poetry can express emotions with a preternatural complexity, and that memorizing a great poem can teach us things about ourselves and others that we may have experienced but not recognized. 

When I began to commit more of my favorite poems and passages from poems to memory, I experienced the great revelation that I now would carry some of my favorite works of literature around with me wherever I went. I often have lines of verse running through my head when I am washing dishes, doing laundry, or taking an evening stroll; at times, I stumble upon a line so rhythmically compelling that it is stuck in my head like the chorus of a pop song for a full day or longer. In our age of distraction, this is wonderful thing. Technology may be able to pull us away from a good book, but it cannot separate us from what has become part of who we are. 

One of my great inspirations is Harold Bloom, perhaps the most eminent and outspoken advocate we currently have in American letters for the memorization of poetry, not to mention the editor of that anthology that drew my interest almost a decade ago. From an early age, Bloom had a gift for memorizing poetry, and his claim that he memorized “Paradise Lost” in childhood sounds much more believable and less arrogant after one has heard him chant one of the numberless poems his brain has acquired over the past seventy years. His recitations of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane (available for listening on YouTube and elsewhere online) resonate with the force and understanding of a reader who has had these beautiful and intricate poems spinning about in his consciousness for decades. Bloom comprehends the weight of each brilliant word that contributes to that transcendent assembly of language we call a poem.

Memory is one of the great wonders of human existence. Though we may rely slightly less on the mind’s capacity to store and catalogue information than we once did, with Google and Wikipedia at our beck and call, memory still holds an intimacy that no technology can ever achieve. As Bloom writes, “all great poetry asks us to be possessed by it. To possess it by memory is a start, and to augment our consciousness is the goal.”