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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I learned a poem by heart this week. Memory Work they called it when I was in school. Of course much of education is a matter of remembering or learning to remember, but Memory Work was understood to mean learning a passage of poetry and being able to stand up and recite it. I’m not sure how much of it is done now, probably depends on the teacher.

There are still passages from Shakespeare plays that I remember more or less accurately from high school, and I like having those beautiful structures of sound available. Something like twenty years ago I passed a summer alone in an old house on Wolfe Island in Ontario, and I decided to return to Memory Work, setting myself to learn two or three Shakespearean sonnets. In more recent years I’ve added a poem now and then, once as a joint project with friends.

Of course I am in the business of arranging words so it is in some ways a professional benefit to have fine examples close by. The memorized poems are also useful during wakeful spells at night. Reciting a sonnet by Shakespeare or Donne keeps the mind in a state that is both concentrated and relaxed. The poem gives pleasure while encouraging a renewed somnolence.

Yes, I learned a poem by heart this week, and that old-fashioned phrase, by heart, suggests that such remembrance is an act of love. The poem I just acquired is the best-known piece by the American poet John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” a poem in five rhymed four-line verses, dealing in a delicate and unsentimental way with the death of a child. I think I first read it many years ago in some anthology, and last week I decided to add it to the personal anthology inside my head. (Or heart.)

A few weeks earlier I memorized a poem by W.B. Yeats, and it too was in quatrains, three stanzas that Yeats adapted freely from a sonnet by the sixteenth century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. I had come upon the Yeats version and the original French in The Jonas Variations, a delightful book of translations and commentary by my old colleague George Jonas. Another poem in quatrains that I learned recently was “The Mower to the Glowworms” by Andrew Marvell.

I mention all three of the poems because it struck me that such short poems in rhymed quatrains often have about them a pleasing mixture of emotional depth and surface wit. Death, age, amorous obsession are confronted, but framed in a minikin elegance—a nightscape of fireflies, a field of white geese. Ransom describes the dead child as in a “brown study”, that old-fashioned phrase for a state of detachment or reverie.

But now go the bells and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

My advice to anyone who might decide to join me in this practice of memorizing poems is to start with poems that rhyme. Once when young I learned by rote the first twenty or thirty lines of Paradise Lost, which are written in Milton’s strongly rhetorical blank verse; the familiar ten syllable pattern of the lines, with their good strong drum beat, helped hold the words in place. I find Shakespeare’s looser and more suggestive blank verse, especially that in the plays, encourages accidental revision.

It’s altogether possible, I think, that end-rhyme was invented, at least in part, for its mnemonic function (Thirty days hath etc), and certainly end rhyme provides a framework that makes the acquisition and retention of the lines easier. And I like rhyme. In the introduction to his translations, George Jonas describes rhyme as like the wheels on a cart. “It is possible to pull a cart without wheels,” he says, “but you had better quadruple the donkeys.”

Applies to the mules of memory as well.

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