Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem

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On Memory and Literature

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My grandmother’s older sister Pauline Stoops, a one-room school teacher born in 1903, had lived in a homestead filled with poetry, which sat on a bluff overlooking the wide and brown Mississippi, as it meandered southward through Hannibal, Missouri. Pauline’s task was to teach children aged six to seventeen in history, math, geography, and science; her students learned about the infernal compromise which admitted Missouri into the union as a slave state and they imagined when the Great Plains were a shallow and warm inland sea millions of years ago; they were taught the strange hieroglyphics of the quadratic equation and the correct whoosh of each cursive letter (and she prepared them oatmeal for lunch every day as well). Most of all, she loved teaching poetry — the gothic morbidities of Edgar Allen Poe and the sober patriotism of John Greenleaf Whittier, the aesthetic purple of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the mathematical perfection of Shakespeare. A woman whom when I knew her was given to extemporaneous recitations of memorized Walt Whitman. She lived in the Midwest for decades, until she followed the rest of her mother’s family eastward to Pennsylvania, her siblings having moved to Reading en masse during the Depression, tracing backwards a trail that had begun with distant relations. Still, Hannibal remained one of Pauline’s favorite places, in part because of its mythic role, this town where Mark Twain had imagined Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer playing as pirates along the riverbank.

“I had been to school most all the time and could spell and read and write just a little,” recounts the titular protagonist in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five, and I don’t reckon I could ever get any further than that if I was to live forever. I don’t take no stock in mathematics, anyway.” Huck’s estimation of poetry is slightly higher, even if he doesn’t read much. He recalls coming across some books while visiting the wealthy Grangerfords, including John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that was filled with statements that “was interesting, but tough” and another entitled Friendship’s Offering that was “full of beautiful stuff and poetry; but I didn’t read the poetry.” Had Huck been enrolled in in Mrs. Stoops’ classroom he would have learned verse from a slender book simply entitled One Hundred and One Poems with a Prose Supplement, compiled by anthologizer Roy Cook in 1916. When clearing out Pauline’s possessions with my grandma, we came across a 1920 edition of Cook’s volume, with favorite lines underlined and pages dog-eared, scraps of paper now a century old used as bookmarks. Cook’s anthology was incongruously printed by the Cable Piano Company of Chicago (conveniently located at the corner of Wabash and Jackson), and included advertisements for their Kingsbury and Conover models, to which they promise student progress even for those with only “a feeble trace of musical ability,” proving that in the United States Mammon can take pilgrimage to Parnassus.

The flyleaf announced that it was “no ordinary collection,” being both “convenient,” “authoritative,” and most humbly “adequate,” while emphasizing that at fifteen cents its purchase would “Save many a trip to the Public Library, or the purchase of a volume ten to twenty times its cost.” Some of the names are familiar — William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling (even if many are less than critically fashionable today). Others are decidedly less canonical — Francis William Bourdillon, Alexander Anderson, Edgar A. Guest (the last of whom wrote pablum like “You may fail, but you may conquer – / See it through!”). It goes without saying that One Hundred and One Poems with a Prose Supplement is overwhelmingly male and completely white. Regardless, there’s a charm to the book, from the antiquated Victorian sensibility to the huckster commercialism. Even more strange and moving was my grandmother’s reaction to this book bound with a brown hardcover made crooked by ten decades of heat and moisture, cold and entropy, the pages inside turned the texture of fall sweetgum and ash leaves as they drop into the Mississippi. When I mentioned Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, my grandmother (twenty years Pauline’s junior) began to perfectly recite from memory “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water,” going on for several stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s distinctive percussive trochaic tetrameter. No doubt she hadn’t read “The Song of Hiawatha” in decades, perhaps half-a-century, and yet the rhythm and meter came back to my grandmother as if she was the one looking at the book and not me.

My grandmother’s formal education ended at Centerville High School in Mystic, Iowa in 1938; I’ve been fortunate enough to go through graduate school and receive an advanced degree in literature. Of the two of us, only she had large portions of poetry memorized; I on the other hand have a head that’s full of references from The Simpsons. If I’m able to recall more than a quarter of a single Holy Sonnet by John Donne I’d be amazed, yet I have the entirety of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” memorized for some reason. Certainly, I have bits and pieces here and there, “Death be not proud” or “Batter my heart three-personed God” and so on, but when it comes to making such verse part of my bones and marrow, I find that I’m rather dehydrated. Memorization was once central to pedagogy, when it was argued that committing verse to instantaneous recall was a way of preserving cultural legacies, that it trained students in rhetoric, and that it was a means of building character. Something can seem pedantic about such poetry recitation; the provenance of fussy antiquarians, apt to start unspooling long reams of Robert Burns or Edward Lear in an unthinking cadence, readers who properly hit the scansion, but where the meaning comes out with the wrong emphasis. Still, such an estimation can’t help but leave the flavor of sour grapes on my tongue where poetry should be, and so the romanticism of the practice must be acknowledged. 

Writing exists so that we don’t have to memorize, and yet there is something tremendously moving about recalling words decades after you first encountered them. Memorization’s consequence, writes Catherine Robson in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, was that “these verses carried the potential to touch and alter the worlds of the huge numbers of people who took them to heart.” Books can burn, but as long as a poem endures in the consciousness of a person, they are in possession of a treasure.  “When the topic of verse memorization is raised today,” writes Robson, “the invocation is often couched within a lament.” Now we’re all possessors of personal supercomputers that can instantly connect us to whole libraries — there can seem little sense to make iambs and trochees part of one’s soul. Now the soul has been outsourced to our smartphones, and we’ve all become cyborgs, carrying our memories in our pockets rather than our brains. But such melancholy over forgetfulness has an incredibly long history. Socrates formulated the most trenchant of those critiques, with Plato noting in the Phaedrus that his teacher had once warned that people will “cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” Important to consider where Socrates places literature, for if it is “within” — like heart, brain, or spleen — rather than some dead thing discarded on inked reeds. According to Socrates, writing is idolatrous; the difference between memorization and actual literature is the equivalent to a painting and reality. Though it must be observed that the only reason we care who Socrates happens to be is because Plato wrote his words down.

Poetry most evokes literature’s first role as a vehicle of memory, because the tricks of prosody – alliteration and assonance; consonance and rhyme – endured because they’re amenable to quick recall. Not only do such attributes make it possible to memorize poetry, they facilitate its composition as well. For literature wasn’t first written on papyrus but rather in the mind, and that was the medium through which it was recorded for most of its immeasurably long history. Since the invention of writing, we’ve tended to think of composition as an issue of a solitary figure committing their ideas to the eternity of paper, but the works of antiquity were a collaborative affair. Albert Lord explains in his 1960 classic The Singer of Tales that “oral epic song is narrative poetry composed in a manner evolved over many generations by singers of tales who did not know how to write; it consists of the building of metrical lines and half lines by means of formulas and formulaic expressions and of the buildings of songs by the use of themes.” Lord had accompanied his adviser, the folklorist and classicist Milman Parry, to the Balkans in 1933 and then again in 1935, where they recorded the oral poetry of the largely illiterate Serbo-Croatian bards. They discovered that recitations were based in “formulas” that made remembering epics not only easier, but also made their performances largely improvisational, even if the contours of a narrative remained consistent. From their observations, Parry and Lord developed the “Oral-Formulaic Theory of Composition,” arguing the pre-literate epics could be mixed and matched in a live telling, by using only a relatively small number of rhetorical tropes, the atoms of spoken literature.

Some of these formulas — phrases like “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” for example — are familiar to any reader of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the two discovered that such utterances had a history in Balkans and the Peloponnesus that goes back millennia. There’s an important difference between relatively recent works like Virgil’s The Aeneid (albeit composed two millennia ago) and the epics of Homer that predate the former by at least eight centuries. When Virgil sat down to pen “I sing of arms and man,” he wasn’t actually singing. He was probably writing, while whoever it was — whether woman or man, women or men — that invoked “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” most likely did utter those words accompanied by a lyre. The Aeneid is a work of literacy, while those of Homer are of orality, which is to say it was composed through memory. Evocatively, there is some evidence that the name “Homer” isn’t a proper noun. It may be an archaic Greek verb, a rough translation being “to speak,” or better yet “to remember.” There were many homers, each of them remembering their own unique version of such tales, until they were forgotten into the inert volumes of written literature.  

Socrates’ fears aren’t without merit. Just as the ability to Google anything at any moment has made contemporary minds atrophied with relaxation, so too does literacy have an effect on recall. With no need to be skilled in remembering massive amounts of information, reading and writing made our minds surprisingly porous. From the Celtic fringe of Britain to the Indus Valley, from the Australian Outback to the Great Plains of North America, ethnographers recount the massive amounts of information which pre-literate peoples were capable of. Poets, priests, and shamans were able to memorize (and adapt when needed) long passages by deft manipulation of rhetorical trope and mnemonic device. When literacy was introduced in places, there was a marked cognitive decline in peoples’ ability to memorize things. For example, writing in the journal Australian Geography, linguist Nick Reid explains that the oral literature of the aboriginal Narrangga people contains narrative details which demonstrate an accurate understanding of the geography of York Peninsula some 12,500 years ago, before melting glaciers irrevocably altered the coastline. Three hundred generations of Narrangga have memorized and told tale of marshy lagoons which no longer exist, an uninterrupted chain of recitation going back an astounding thirteen millennia. Today, if every single copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest were to simultaneously vanish, who among us would be able to recreate those books?

It turns out that some folks have been able to train their minds to store massive amounts of language. Among pious Muslims, people designated as Hafiz have long been revered for their ability to memorize the 114 surahs of the holy Quran. Allah’s words are thus written into the heart of the reverential soul, so that language becomes as much a part of a person as the air which fills lungs or the blood which flows in veins. “One does not have to read long in Muslim texts,” writes William Graham in Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, “to discover how the ring of the qur’anic text cadences the thinking, writing, and speaking of those who live with and by the Qur’an.” Still relatively common in the Islamic world, the process of memorizing not just Longfellow or a few fragments of T.S. Eliot, but rather an entire book, is still accomplished to a surprising degree. Then there are those who through some mysterious cognitive gift (or curse depending on perspective) possess eidetic memory, and have the ability to commit entire swaths of text to retrieval without the need for mnemonic devices or formulas. C.S. Lewis could supposedly quote from memory any particular line of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that he was asked about; similar claims have been made about critic Harold Bloom.

Prodigious recall need not only be the purview of otherworldly savants, as people have used similar methods as a Hafiz or a Narrangga to consume a book. Evangelical minister Tom Meyer, also known as the “Bible Memory Man,” has memorized twenty books of scripture, while actor John Bassinger used his stage-skills to memorize all six thousand lines of Paradise Lost, with an analysis some two decades later demonstrating that he was still able to recite the epic with some 88% accuracy. As elaborated on by Lois Parshley in Nautilus, Bassinger used personal associations of physical movement and spatial location to “deep encode” the poem, quoting him as saying that Milton is a “cathedral I carry around in my mind… a place that I can enter and walk around at will.” No other type of art is like this — you can remember what a painting looks like, you can envision a sculpture, but only music and literature can be preserved and carried with you, and the former requires skills beyond memorization. As a scholar I’ve been published in Milton Studies, but if Bassinger and I marooned on an island somewhere, or trapped in the unforgiving desert, only he would be in actual possession of Paradise Lost, while I sadly sputtered half-remembered epigrams about justifying the ways of God to man.

Bassinger, who claims that he still loses his car keys all the time, was able to memorize twelve books of Milton by associating certain lines with particular movements, so that the thrust of an elbow may be man’s first disobedience, the kick of a leg being better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. There is a commonsensical wisdom in understanding that memory has always been encoded in the body, so that our legs and arms think as surely as our brains do. Walter Ong explains in Orality and Literacy that “Bodily activity beyond mere vocalization is not… contrived in oral communication, but is natural and even inevitable.” Right now, I’m composing while stooped over, in the servile position of desk siting, with pain in my back and crick in my neck, but for the ancient bards of oral cultures the unspooling of literature would have been done through a sweep of the arms or the trot of a leg. Motion and memory being connected in a walk. Paradise Lost as committed by Bassinger was also a “cathedral,” a place that he could go to, and this is one of the most venerable means of being able to memorize massive amounts of writing. During the Renaissance, itinerant humanists used to teach the ars memoriae, a set of practical skills designed to hone memory. Chief among these tutors was the sixteenth-century Italian occultist, defrocked Dominican, and heretic Giordano Bruno, who took as students King Henry III of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (later he’d be burnt at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, though for unrelated reasons).

Bruno used many different methodologies, including mnemonics, associations, and repetitions, but his preferred approach was something called the method of loci. “The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places,” writes Dame Frances Yates in The Art of Memory. “In order to form a series of places in memory… a building is to be remembered, as spacious and varied a one as possible, the forecourt, the living room, bedrooms, and parlors, not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated.” In a strategy dating back to Cicero and Quintilian, Bruno taught that the “images by which the speech is to be remembered… are then placed in imagination on the memorial places which have been memorized in the building,” so that “as soon as the memory… requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits demanded of their custodians.” Bruno had his students build in their minds what are called “memory palaces,” architectural imaginings whereby a line of prose may be associated with an opulent oriental rug, a stanza of poetry with a blue Venetian vase upon a mantle, an entire chapter with a stone finishing room in some chateau; the candle sticks, fireplace kindling, cutlery, and tapestries each hinged to their own fragment of language, so that recall can be accessed through a simple stroll in the castle of your mind.

It all sounds very esoteric, but it actually works. Even today, competitive memorization enthusiasts (this is a real thing) use the same tricks that Bruno taught. Science journalist Joshua Foer recounts how these very same methods were instrumental in his winning the 2006 USA Memory Championship, storing poems in his mind by associating them with places as varied as Camden Yards and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, so that he “carved each building up into loci that would serve as cubbyholes for my memories.” The method of loci is older than Bruno, than even Cicero and Quintilian, and from Camden Yards and the National Gallery to Stonehenge and the Nazca Lines, spatial organization has been a powerful tool. Archeologist Lynne Kelly claims that many Neolithic structures actually functioned as means for oral cultures to remember text, arguing in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture that “Circles or lines of stones or posts, ditches or mounds enclosing open space… serve as memory theaters beautifully.”

Literature is simultaneously vehicle, medium, preserver, and occasionally betrayer of memory. Just as our own recollections are more mosaic than mirror (gathered from small pieces that we’ve assembled as a narrative with varying degrees of success), so too does writing impose order on one thing after another. Far more than memorized lines, or associating stanzas with rooms, or any mnemonic trick, memory is the ether of identity, but it is fickle, changing, indeterminate, and unreliable. Fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, drama and essay — all are built with bricks of memory, but with a foundation set on wet sand. Memory is the half-recalled melody of a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood song played for your son while you last heard it decades ago; it’s the way that a certain laundry detergent smells like Glasgow in the fall and a particular deodorant as Boston in the cool summer; how the crack of the bat at PNC Park brings you back to Three Rivers Stadium, and Jagged Little Pill always exists in 1995. And memory is also what we forget. Our identities are simply an accumulation of memories — some the defining moments of our lives, some of them half-present and only to be retrieved later, and some constructed after the fact.

“And once again I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoration of lime flowers which my aunt used to give me,” Marcel Proust writes in the most iconic scene of In Remembrance of Things Past, and “immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.” If novels are a means of excavating the foundations of memory, then Proust’s magnum opus is possibly more associated with how the deep recesses of the mind operate than any other fiction. A Proustian madeleine, signifying all the ways in which sensory experiences trigger visceral, almost hallucinatory memories, has become a mainstay, even while most have never read In Remembrance of Things Past. So universal is the phenomenon, the way in which the taste of Dr. Pepper can propel you back to your grandmother’s house, or Paul Simon’s Graceland can place you on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that Proust’s madeleine has become the totem of how memories remain preserved in tastes, sounds, smells. Incidentally, the olfactory bulb of the brain, which processes odors, is close to the hippocampus where memories are stored, so that Proust’s madeleine is a function of the cerebral cortex. Your madeleine need not be a delicately crumbed French cookie dissolving in tea, it could just as easily be a Gray’s Papaya waterdog, a Pat’s cheesesteak, or a Primanti Brother’s sandwich (all of those work for me). Proust’s understanding of memory is sophisticated, for while we may humor ourselves into thinking that our experiences are recalled with verisimilitude, the reality is that we shuffle and reshuffle the past, we embellish and delete, and what’s happened to us can return as easily as its disappeared. “The uncomfortable reality is that we remember in the same way that Proust wrote,” argues Jonah Lehrer in Proust was a Neuroscientist. “As long as we have memories to recall, the margins of those memories are being modified to fit what we know now.”

Memory is the natural subject of all novels, since the author composes from the detritus of her own experience, but also because the form is (primarily) a genre of nostalgia, of ruminating in the past (even an ostensibly invented one). Some works are more explicitly concerned with memory, their authors reflecting on the malleability, plasticity, and endurance of memory. Consider Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, ruminating on the traumas of his school years, noting that we all live with the assumption that “memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.” Amnesia is the shadow version of memory, all remembrance haunted by that which we’ve forgotten. Kazuo Ishiguro’s parable of collective amnesia The Buried Giant imagines a post-Arthurian Britannia wherein “this land had become cursed with a mist of forgetfulness,” so that it’s “queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” Jorge Luis Borges imagines the opposite scenario in his short story “Funes the Memorius,” detailing his friendship with a fictional Uruguayan boy who after a horse-riding accident is incapable of forgetting a single detail of his life. He can remember “ever crevice and every molding of the various houses.” What’s clear, despite Funes being “as monumental as bronze,” is that if remembering is the process of building a narrative for ourselves, then ironically it requires forgetting. Funes’ consciousness is nothing but hyper-detail, and with no means to cull based on significance or meaning, it all comes to him as an inchoate mass, so that he was “almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort.”

Between the cursed amnesiacs of Ishiguro and the damned hyperthymiac of Borges are Barnes’ aging characters, who like most of us remember some things, while finally forgetting most of what’s happened. Tellingly, a character like Tony Webster does something which comes the closest to writing — he preserves the notable stuff and deletes the rest. Funes is like an author who can’t bring himself to edit, and the Arthurian couple of Ishiguro’s tale are those who never put pen to paper in the first place. Leher argues that Proust “believed that our recollections were phony. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications,” for we are always in the process of editing and reediting our pasts, making up new narratives in a process of revision that only ends with death. This is to say that memory is basically a type of composition — it’s writing. From an assemblage of things which happen to us — anecdotes, occurrences, traumas, intimacies, dejections, ecstasies, and all the rest — we impose a certain order on the past; not that we necessarily invent memories (though that happens), but rather that we decide which memories are meaningful, we imbue them with significance, and then we structure them so that our lives take on the texture of a narrative. We’re able to say that had we not been in the Starbucks near Union Square that March day, we might never have met our partner, or if we hadn’t slept in and missed that job interview, we’d never have stayed in Chicago. “Nothing was more central to the formation of identity than the power of memory,” writes Oliver Sachs in The River of Consciousness, “nothing more guaranteed one’s continuity as an individual,” even as “memories are continually worked over and revised and that their essence, indeed, is recategorization.” We’re all roman a clef in the picaresque of our own minds, but bit characters in the novels written by others.

A century ago, the analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in The Analysis of Mind that there is no “logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into existence five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past.” Like most metaphysical speculation there’ something a bit sophomoric about this, though Russell admits as such when he writes that “I am not here suggesting that the non-existence of the past should be entertained as hypothesis,” only that speaking logically nobody can fully “disprove the hypothesis.” This is a more sophisticated version of something known as the “Omphalos Argument” — a cagey bit of philosophical book-keeping that had been entertained since the eighteenth-century — whereby evidence of the world’s “supposed” antiquity (fossils, geological strata, etc.) were seen as devilish hoaxes, and thus the relative youthfulness of the world’s age could be preserved alongside biblical inerrancy (the multisyllabic Greek word means “naval,” as in Eve and Adam’s bellybutton). The five-minute hypothesis was entertained as a means of thinking about radical skepticism, where not only all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are fictions, but our collective memories are a fantasy as well. Indeed, Russell is correct in a strictly logical sense; writing this at 4:52 P.M. on April 20th, 2021, and there is no way that I can rely on any outside evidence, or my own memories, or your memories, to deductively and conclusively prove with complete certainty that the universe wasn’t created at 4:47 P.M. on April 20th, 2021 (or by whatever calendar our manipulative robot-alien overlords count the hours, I suppose).

Where such a grotesque possibility errs is that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. In some ways, it’s already true; the past is no longer here and the future has yet to occur, we’ve always been just created in this eternal present (whatever time we might ascribe to it). To remember is to narrate, to re-remember is still to narrate, and to narrate is to create meaning. Memories are who we are — the fundamental particles of individuality. Literature then, is a type of cultural memory; a conscious thing whose neurons are words, and whose synapses are what authors do with those words. Writing is memory made manifest, a conduit for preserving our identity outside of the prison of our own skulls. A risk here, though. For memory fails all of us to varying degrees — some in a catastrophic way — but everyone is apt to forget most of what’s happened to them. “Memory allows you to have a sense of who you are and who you’ve been,” argues Lisa Genova in Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. Those neurological conditions which “ravage the hippocampus” are particularly psychically painful, with Genova writing that “If you’ve witnessed someone stripped bare of his or her personal history by Alzheimer’s disease, you know firsthand how essential memory is to the experience of being human.” To argue that our memories are ourselves is dangerous, for what happens when our past slips away from view? Pauline didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s, though in her last years she was afflicted by dementia. I no longer remember what she looked like, exactly, this woman alive for both Kitty Hawk and the Apollo mission. I can no longer recall what her voice sounded like. What exists once our memories are deleted from us, when our narratives have unraveled? What remains after that deletion is something called the soul. When I dream about Pauline, I see and hear her perfectly.

Image: Pexels/Jordane Mathieu.

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