“A Local Habitation and a Name” — Poetry, Memory, and Biography by James R. Cowles

Prof. Molly Worthen’s recent reflection on the paucity of emphasis on memorizing poetry resonated with me very strongly, though for reasons she did not account for in her recent op-ed piece in the New York Times. Based on my own experience spanning an academic lifetime, I would suggest a different approach that could render memorizing poetry more relevant and even more pleasurable. My methodology is very simple and straightforward to describe and, perhaps for that reason, quite effective:  instead of emphasizing rote memorization of poetry, instill a love of the text itself. Learn to love Hamlet, love it to the point that you read it over and over again during a lifetime, and memorizing the great soliloquy will most likely take care of itself. Above all, learn to reflect on your life experience within the enclosing context of literature.  Herewith some personal examples, which include both poetry and prose.

The first time I can remember that a literary text revolutionized my life was when, in 8th-grade AP English in the early 60s, Mr. Gordon Morse, teaching English at Horace Man Intermediate School in Wichita, KS, where I grew up, one day handed out to his class mimeographed copies of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses”.  I have written of this elsewhere. I had always had, even at that callow age, a restlessness, an intellectual wanderlust. (I think that my one signal achievement in the American educational system, in fact, is that I managed to emerge from junior-high school with my capacity for gratuitous passionate curiosity intact. Many are not so fortunate.) Thanks to Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, I realized that I was not alone. A poet writing in Victorian England was writing about me. I remember cloistering myself in my bedroom that night and skipping dinner … just to read that poem over and over again. (To this day, those few occasions when I smell mimeograph fluid always evoke memories of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”.) Now I can recite it by heart, not because I sat down and deliberately memorized it, but because awakened passion did what a brute determination to memorize could not.

In my twenties and into my early thirties, I was subject to periods of dangerously black clinical depression and abject panic attacks. That I am no longer thus tormented I credit to being married to a woman who is uniquely proficient at just putting up with me. But it was not always thus.  During that grim time, I would turn … yes … to Hamlet’s soliloquy and escape possible suicide by remembering  Hamlet’s haunting question about “what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause”.  I continued living precisely because I was more disposed to “bear those ills [I] have than fly to others [I] know not of”.  I also read multiple dozens of times Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus in my first undergraduate philosophy course at Wichita State University, and can still recite from memory the opening paragraph about suicide being the “only truly serious philosophical problem”, and why ancillary questions are just “games”. I do not know when I realized these texts were so intimate a part of me. As with “Ulysses,” I just “woke up” one day and realized they were. Over time, in both cases and in both cases because those texts had become so “existentially” important to me, I had memorized the text without consciously realizing it or intending to.

The crisis was intensified, in fact, nearly rendered hopeless, when I discovered T. S. Eliot’s pre-1929 poetry, e.g., “Hollow Men” and, of course, The Wasteland. Both were, on vastly different scales – “Hollow Men” on the level of individuals; The Wasteland on the level of the whole of western culture – autobiographical in the sense of being descriptions of my own self-perception during this period, i.e., when I was an undergraduate and early in my grad-student years.  We are the hollow men, / We are the stuffed men, / Leaning together, / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!  … Thanks to The Wasteland, I also understood intuitively and from the inside the vapidity of Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante … the wisest woman in Europe, but behind  whom stands only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And / the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, /And the dry stone no sound of water.

But fortunately for me, at some point in the process of dealing with my predisposition to depression and intermittent suicidal ideation, I discovered T. S. Eliot’s post-1929 poetry. (The “magic” year of 1929 turned out to be Eliot’s annus mirabilis:  the year he converted to Christianity, joined the Anglican Church, and became a self-described “Anglo-Catholic” — to the astonishment of good friends like Virginia Woolf.) I still saw myself in “Gerontion”:  “An old man [though I was only in my thirties] in a dry month … waiting for rain [whose] house was a decayed house”. “Gerontion” remains for me to this day one of the most starkly terrifying poems in the English language, much of the terror being traceable to Gerontion’s insipidity by virtue of his embodiment of the buried life Matthew Arnold had previously written aboutThere rises an unspeakable desire  / After the knowledge of our buried life,  / A thirst to spend our fire and restless force  / In tracking out our true, original course; / A longing to inquire  / Into the mystery of this heart which beats  / So wild, so deep in us, to know  / Whence our lives come and where they go. I could relate, and to this day can recite large passages of “Gerontion” from memory.

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Little Gidding


I say “fortunately for me”, because, along with “Gerontion,” I also discovered Eliot’s great cycle of religious poetry, The Four Quartets, which I am still, after forty-plus years, very much in the process of unpacking, and which I still consider to this day to be the greatest religious poetry ever written, worthy of favorable comparison to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  (So compelling was this estimate that I even wrote an undergraduate thesis delineating the relationship between the two great works. Being a math, physics, and philosophy major, not an English major, at Wichita State at the time, I had to move heaven, earth, the Office of the Academic Dean, and the WSU English department to get permission, but it was worth the effort.) I do not have time to write, nor do you have time to read, the reasons why the discovery of the Quartets was the beginning of the decades-long process by which my life – I mean the following literally – was saved, and by which I was able to climb out of the black hole to which my childhood and adolescent experience with a dysfunctional family and an equally dysfunctional hyper-fundamentalist religious upbringing had previously consigned me.

So suffice to say that Eliot’s great accomplishment in the Quartets was to achieve a kind of coincidentia oppositorum of Comedy and Tragedy, depicting the dependence of each on the other, not only or even primarily at the level of the culture, but in the individual’s life – “the fire and the rose are one” (“Little Gidding”) — a reconciliation rendered even more authentic by the fact that Eliot had actually lived his poetry in his own religious and spiritual struggles, and in his fraught relationship with his disturbed wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood, culminating in her commitment to a mental institution, in collaboration with Vivienne’s own brother. (To this day, I wonder if the lines Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” refer obliquely to the pangs of conscience he suffered as a result of this collaboration:  … the shame of motives late revealed, the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.) At the very least, the Four Quartets is a prominent exception to Eliot’s later – and, I think, well justified — contention that the greatest problem with religious poetry is that the poet usually writes more about how she wishes she felt than about how she really feels. Perhaps so. But the Quartets is a great exception. So I feel a great kinship with Eliot because, as he wrote in Burnt Norton, “[H]uman kind / cannot bear very much reality,” and in many related ways, Eliot and I both came very much to the edge of how much “reality” a human can “bear”.

All the above accounts for why, to this day, at least half the poetry I have “accidentally” memorized is drawn from the works of T. S. Eliot, from “Hollow Men” to “Preludes” (the worlds revolve like ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots) to The Wasteland to “Gerontion” to Four Quartets. Despite being physically and chronologically separated, these works collectively constitute a kind of twentieth-century equivalent of Pilgrim’s Progress. Different as are the poets, and prose authors, whose work I have “accidentally” memorized, they all share one common characteristic:  beginning with Tennyson and “Ulysses,” they all, without exception, made explicit in words many thoughts, feelings, intuitions, insights, and just plain “hunches” that had been circulating in me for some time, and gave those thoughts, feelings, etc., an overt form.  (That is true even of the French symbolists and the more recondite texts of Wallace Stevens:  I don’t “understand” them … yet I do.) One concluding element of my “accidental” archive, this from A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name. Yes. Exactly.

During the junior-high year in AP English at Horace Mann I spent with Mr. Morse, he gave the class two poems to memorize, one for each semester:  The Wreck of the Hesperus and The Highwayman.  They were excellent poems, and, in a way, memorizing them and reciting them before the class, as we all were required to do at the end of each of the two semesters, was actually fun. But neither ignited, or was ignited by, a “fire in the belly,” like the foregoing examples. Neither “memorized themselves” as did, e.g., for me, “Ulysses” or the opening paragraph of “Little Gidding”. (Today, in fact, I remember The Wreck of the Hesperus primarily because of the hilarious and ribald Mad Magazine satire of the poem.) The common thread that unites the other poems is a love of the text itself, and the correlative love of the language – both of which were forged in the crucible of actual life-experience. I literally cannot imagine, nor do I particularly want to imagine, my life without, e.g., “Ulysses” and The Idylls of the King and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets” and Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” (and “The Snowman” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “Sunday Morning” … etc.) and A. R. Ammons’ “Easter Morning” and Eliot’s “Hollow Men” and The Wasteland and “Preludes” and Four Quartets. Prof. Worthen simultaneously overestimates and underestimates the importance of memorization:  she overestimates it because she seems to confuse knowing a poem with memorizing it; and she underestimates it by seeing poetry as less than what it is, or at least as what it can eventually become:  an actual load-bearing structure of one’s identity and self-hood. A part of one’s soul.

© 2017, James R. Cowles

Editorial note: James is a feature writer at Beguine Again, the sister site to The BeZine, and a core team member of the The Bardo Group Beguines. He has master’s in math from Wichita State University, a master’s in physics as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow from Tulane, a master’s in English literature from Tufts by way of Harvard and, as a Council of Europe Fellow, Oxford (Exeter College … same Oxford college as JRR Tolkien), and a master’s in theology (MAPS) from Seattle University.

Image credits

Homer … British Museum … Public domain
T. S. Eliot, 1934 … Lady Ottoline Morrell … Public domain
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Little Gidding … Nick MacNeill … CC BY-SA 2.0
Portrait of Shakespeare … John Taylor (?) … Public domain
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet … James Lafayette … Public domain
Albert Camus … Robert Edwards … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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