By Paul M. Lewis
I know of no better way of understanding a poem—I mean, of really getting it—than to memorize it. Yes, of course, just reading a piece of poetry is always good; and in rereading it several time one can certainly begin to comprehend at a deeper level what a particular piece, especially a complex and complicated one, is all about. But if you want to make a poem completely yours, learn it by heart.
This was something I first discovered while memorizing some of the sonnets of William Shakespeare. It all started more or less on a lark. I was spending a lot of time on various workout machines at the gym, treadmills mostly, and it soon enough became clear to me that this did not provide much mental stimulation. So, rather than stare at the inanity of the TV screen in front of me (thankfully, the sound is always turned off), and more or less by way of self-defense, I took to memorizing a few of my favorite poems. It was mostly a way of keeping my mind active and interested, present, you might say. I began with a few by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and eventually I moved on to Shakespeare.
The first time I read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, I admit I had to wonder a little what exactly it was about. I’m not a Shakespearian scholar, only an interested amateur, one who likes to go to his plays and listen to the sonorousness of that glorious language. That said, it’s not just sound that’s important; after all, the language also does mean something. Take his sonnet number five, as an example. In it, we read, “Were not summer’s distillation left/A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” Now, what in the world does that mean? As I practiced and learned the poem by heart, it became clearer that Shakespeare was talking about perfume made from flowers and stored in a glass vial. Then, going on to the last two lines of the same sonnet, the traditional rhyming couplet, he writes: “For flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,/Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.” Again, words not necessarily immediately understandable to our modern ear. But with some practice, it soon enough became clear that Shakespeare was talking about the stored up scent of flowers (i.e. perfume), and though the flowers may lose their outward beauty, the preserved scent still gives great pleasure any time of the year, even in winter.
Of course, if you’re not particularly drawn to poetry in the first place, to the unique and exquisite way it can condense and refine language, creating its own phantasmagoric world, then I suppose a legitimate enough question is, why bother at all? Why put the effort and the mental energy into memorizing something that may not appeal? I get that, and have no argument against it. But still, if you consider for a moment just how magnificent the language itself can be, how the compactness of its meaning is so striking, so astounding, how the rhythm, the sheer vibratory energy of the poem can be so surprising, so breathtaking, so extraordinary, then you may come to a deeper and greater appreciation of what it is.
I have always felt that language is a powerful tool; that its sound, its throbbing vibrato, the pulsation of it, has the ability to make changes in the world. I’m not necessarily talking about changes “out there,” making things appear or disappear, for example (although, who knows, maybe someone with a profound enough ability to concentrate can make things happen that ordinary mortals cannot?). But at very least, what I am talking about is the ability it has to make changes in our own consciousness, that is, to lift one’s thoughts from the mundane and the everyday to the greater heights of the ethereal and the otherworldly. Shakespeare himself seems to suggest this in another sonnet, the famous number 29. Here, he begins with a long list of things that have put him (the speaker) into “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” In that list, we come across such items as wishing that he were “…like to one more rich in hope,/Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,/Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,/With what I most enjoy contented least.”
Now, it can be said, as lovely as the language is here, it is nonetheless about a kind of depressed state of being; and therefore it might be thought of as not particularly uplifting. However, as so often happens in the structure of these lovely sonnets, beginning with the ninth line, things take a turn: “Yet, in these thoughts, myself almost despising,/Haply I think on thee,” and then his state does change. But who is this “thee” that Shakespeare is speaking of, by the way? Many scholars believe it references the beloved youth, the young man to whom the first 126 sonnets are addressed. No one knows who this was, or even if it was an actual young man whom Shakespeare loved, or a compilation of people, or even a symbol of something else. And because this part of it is less than certain, it clears the way for each of us to insert our own “thee” into that space. Whether that turns out to be a person, an ideal, a hope for the future, a wish for greater things to come, or even—if you prefer—some spiritual being, who may help us be better than we think we’re capable of, all that can be left to us.
The important point is that, with mere words—albeit powerful ones—there actually is a way of uplifting one’s own consciousness. Indeed, there may be no better way of demonstrating this than by quoting verbatim here the rest of this lovely poem and letting it speak its overwhelming beauty directly:
“…then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
There are other poems, too, that uplift and that change how we think, how we see the world. William Butler Yates does it all the time. In his “Lake Isle of Innisfree” we read, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” What can Innisfree refer to except that inner space wherein we feel ourselves to be liberated (“in-is-free”)? Or Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in his “Pied Beauty” speaks, although perhaps less directly and more figuratively, of all things spotted and mixed: “Glory be to God for dappled things,/For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;/For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.” He ends with this laudatory attribution: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:/Praise him.”
Coming back full circle to where I began, as lovely as it is simply to read any of this, the memorization of it somehow serves to incorporate the language into our psychic DNA. It takes the immense beauty of the words, and of how the words work for and with one another, and the meaning, and all that is beyond mere meaning, and instills and integrates it into the very elemental fabric of our being. In this way, we too arise and go to Innisfree, to this place far beyond the intellectual, beyond the ken of everyday understanding, and we assimilate it into the fiber of who we are. As Yates says in the same poem, speaking of such a spot:
“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”
Who would not want to live in such a place? And is it really possible to do so? To be sure, the world out there has its grandeur and allure, though who does not also see its terrible ugliness, as well? But the deep world of poetry, learned by heart, made one’s own and fully taken into one’s own private inner sanctum, such that one is not merely saying the words but living them, experiencing them in the fullness of their totality, transforms us in a way that art, at its highest and very best, as well as beauty, and truth, and love, and even spirituality, has always been meant to do.