In Praise of Memorizing Poetry—Badly

What makes them great.
Nov. 1 2011 7:18 AM

In Praise of Memorizing Poetry—Badly

What we learn by misremembering our favorite lines.

Mistakes are instructive. In particular, they can become a form of analysis, as, for example, in sports or music, when getting something a little bit wrong leads to improvement in technique or understanding.

Many of us, in the imperfect memorizing of a poem, make mistakes, too—as though we were folk singers or blues artists, but without the traditional flexibility of those forms.  Is it “many recognitions dim and faint,” you might ask yourself, or “many recognitions sad and faint”? And, before you can find the authoritative book and check, which one do you prefer? And why?

A dramatic demonstration of this principle came to me on a hike in the mountains years ago. My hiking companion and I did a little reciting along the way. I had a short poem by William Butler Yeats pretty accurately by heart, except for one word, in the fourth line:

“On Being Asked for a War Poem”
I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of [something] who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.

The way I said it to myself and my companion seemed right, except for the word I filled in—we were both pretty sure it wasn't what Yeats wrote. “Glory” made some sense, and had the right rhythm, but it did not sound right:

He has had enough of glory who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.

It could  be considered glorious to please the two readers Yeats describes: As hypothetical (and somewhat stereotypical) characters, they represent those who have things other than poetry on their minds; to please them, in a way when they don't expect it, could be considered a stroke of glory, in the way of art. And there's an implicit contrast with the more expected use of “glory” in relation to war. But, no, despite such case-making, the word just doesn't work very well. It is forced.

My fellow hiker had another suggestion that we both decided was better than “glory”:

He has had enough of striving who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.

You can say for “striving” that it makes more sense than “glory,” and that it is in the right key for the poem, in keeping with the formality of an invitation declined. But there's a flatness to “striving”: It doesn't add much more in the way of thought or feeling than the place-holder “something.”

As soon as we came off the mountain, we went to a bookstore (and bought the book, in a sort of karma-conscious spirit). The word Yeats actually uses is tougher, more harshly aggressive and, in a way dismissive, than anything we had come up with; there it was on the page, kind of shocking:

“On Being Asked for a War Poem”
I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.
Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Wiliam Butler Yeats' "On Being Asked for a War Poem." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

One effect of “meddling” is to restore the historical context: The war in question is World War I, about which an Irish poet might feel quite ambivalent. In another poem in the same book (The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919), “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” Yeats has the young airman say:

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love.

In addition to that political context, the word meddling gives an audacious or severe rightness to the action of this particular poem and its fabric: In another emotional context, meddling would not feel right as a term for poetic striving for something more ambitious (or more glorious?) than simply to please. In “Easter 1916” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” the interwoven historical and personal elements are different, and Yeats' ear for sound and nuance is differently deployed. I felt, that day, that by memorizing his poem imperfectly, I had received a creative writing lesson from a great poet.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in discussion of William Butler Yeats' "On Being Asked for a War Poem" this week. Post your questions and comments on the work, and he'll respond and participate. For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site. Click here for an archive of discussions about poems with Robert Pinsky in "the Fray," Slate's reader forum.

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