“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

AND THE NEEDY SHALL HAVE HOPE, Thoughts on Day Two

"And the needy shall have hope ..." Job 5:16

“And the needy shall have hope …” Job 5:16

I AM WILLING

I am open and I am willing
To be hopeless would seem so strange
It dishonors those who go before us
So lift me up to the light of change

There is hurting in my family
There is sorrow in my town
There is panic in the nation
There is wailing the whole world round

May the children see more clearly
May the elders be more wise
May the winds of change caress us
Even though it burns our eyes

© Holly Near, Singer and Songwriter

“Eastward and westward storms are breaking,–great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty. I will not believe them inevitable.”  W.E.B. Du Bois, The Wisdom of W.E.B. DuBois

With a nod to Unitarian Minister Ben Meyer and Congregational Minister Penny Nixon in gratitude for a healing evening of songs, prayers and meditation. Dedicated with hope and with faith in the ultimate goodness of humankind: for J.A. and his grandson born on November 9, 2016

THE BeZINE, July 2016; Vol. 2/Issue 10; Faith in Things Seen and Unseen

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake

This is the original Table of Contents from the July 15 issue.  Working links to all the pieces are included here.

Faith! In the discussions here you won’t find consistent perspective or theology. You will find faith explored in its many manifestations, religious and otherwise. You’ll find it both shaken and unshakable and in things of the spirit, in nature and humanity, in intuition and in self and family. Unity here is not in things creedal but in the shared values of peace, sustainability and social justice and for many of us – implicitly – in ultimate salvation through artistic expression.

Unitarian Universalist Minister, Rev. Ben Meyers, starts us with an appeal to religions to give their prayers and vigils legs, to befriend one another into the groundswell of local social justice initiatives that ultimately help to inform and bolster global efforts toward equity, justice and peace.This couldn’t be more appropriate as The BeZine “went to press” amid news reports of yet more violence.

You will find our usual diversity represented: skepticism and atheism, the three Abrahamic traditions, shamanism, and the mystical perspectives of Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism.

Our special selection of lead features and poems are by: shamanic practitioner and psychotherapist, Michael Watson; resident skeptic, James R. Cowles; the always engaging and level-headed analyst, Priscilla Galasso; the fallen altar boy, poet Joe Hesch; professional story-teller and photographer, Naomi Baltuck; our renaissance man in Sheffield, John Anstie; and university librarian, poet and artist, Corina Ravenscraft, on the ultimate triumph of the Universe.

Speaking from positions of their unshakable religious faith are: Algerian poet, Imen Benyoub, on the spiritual joys and family and community connection she finds in the holy tradition of Ramadan; Catholic Theologian, Fr. Daniel S Sormani, theology professor at Ateneo de Manila University, warmly writes about lessons learned from the homely life of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and our gentle Italian literary contributor, Mendes Biondo, tells of inspiration from the Bishop of Hippo Regius (current Annaba, Algeria), St. Augustine. Imen and Mendes are our two student contributors.

Two of our contributors allude to child sexual abuse but a third, Terri Muuss, addresses it head-on and in depth. These are experiences that can strengthen faith in self, though that doesn’t come without pain and work. Terri is featured this month in our popular “Getting to Know You” section.

Our July poetry collection covers matters spiritual, emotional and environmental with excerpts from published collections by Zine regulars: Matt Pasca, Terri Muuss, Myra Schneider, Silva Merjanian and Michael Dickel, contributing editor to The BeZine. With joy we welcome back two lights: German poet, photographer and educator, Dr. Aprilia Zank and English poet, Patricia Leighton.

New to our pages in this issue are:

  • Connie Spearing  who writes of finally “seeing” her Irish grandmother with the accidental discovery of her family’s history during and after World War 1.
  • Sandra Renew’s‘s poetry expresses her opinions on the state of the world. She wonders who sleeps at night? Who is lucky enough to live in safety and peace?
  • Anca Mihaela Bruma, citizen of world, educated in Rumania, is a poet who writes spiritual autobiography. Anca wanted to incorporate some lovely music and art into her posts. Due to copyrights in one case  (Dorina Costras’ art) and technical incompetence (mine) in the other, we are unable to share Dorina’s paintings or Anca’s soundcloud recordings. However you can view Dorina’s work HERE. You can listen to Anca on soundcloud HERE.

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One last word: DON’T FORGET TO SAVE THE DATE Saturday, 24 September 2016 is The BeZine’s 100,000 Poets for Change, an event which we host virtually.  This event is part of an  important annual arts initiative for global solidarity and peace, social justice and sustainability. Reader participation is invited and encouraged. This is a good time to share your work in the service of a worthy cause.  As is our tradition, all submissions will be archived here and at Standford University. Instructions for participation will be provided on our blog that day with Michael Dickel serving as Master of Ceremonies.  Between Michael and me, the event will run from morning in Israel to midnight in California. The theme this year is Environment/Environmental Justice. More detail HERE.

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Now, come friends.  Read.  Nourish yourselves at our table …

In the spirit of peace, love and community
and on behalf of The Bardo Group Beguines,
Jamie Dedes
Founding and Managing Editor
The BeZine

EDITORIAL

The World in Vigil, by Rev. Ben Meyers

THEME: FAITH IN ALL THINGS SEEN and UNSEEN

Lead Features

Knowing, Michael Watson
Varieties of Faith – Rational and Religous, James R. Cowles
Faith Means Making Choices, Priscilla Galasso
A Perfect World, Naomi Baltuck
Falling But Willing, Joseph Hesch
The Pine Cone Project, John Anstie
Regarding Faith, Corina Ravenscraft

Essays

A Month of Light, Imen Benyoub
The Blessed Mother: She Reminds Me of Who I Am and Who I Should Be, Fr. Daniel S. Sormani, C.S.Sp.
A Little Story of Faith, Mendes Biondo
NOTIONS OF THE SACRED: Poetry as Spritual Practice, Jamie Dedes
The Grandmother I Didn’t See, Connie Spearing

Speculative Flash Fiction

Moshe’s House in Space, Michael Dickle

Poetry

Rhetoric Introspection, Anca Mihaela Bruma
Our Autumn Spring, Anca Mihaela Bruma
Hindsight, Anca Mihaela Bruma

Unidos en Cristo, a poem in English y en español, Jamie Dedes

Three Poems, Michael Dickel
En Gedi, Michael Dickel
Hybrid: Warm Hunger, Michael Dickel

Lost Behind Clouds in Skies of Blue, Joseph Hesch
Hang in There, Joseph Hesch

And the Village Still Sings for Taha Muhammad Ali, Patricia Leighton

Coverage, Silva Merjanian

Passing, Terri Muuss
What Heals, Terri Muuss

Tanyou (In Search of Quietude), Matt Pasca
Silence, Matt Pasca
Toll, Matt Pasca
When Joy Breaks, Matt Pasca

Bring all those who where led astray out of the desert, Sandra Renew

3 a.m., Myra Schneider

prayer for shadows, Aprilia Zank

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

Terri Muuss, Over Exposed

CONNECT WITH US

IMG_0234Beguine Again, Spiritual Community and Practice

Facebook, The Bardo Group Beguines

Twitter, The Bardo Group Beguines

Access to the biographies of our core team, contributing writers and guest writers is in The BeZine blogroll where you can also find links to archived issues of The BeZine (currently in the process of updating), our Mission Statement and Submission Guidelines.