"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Friday, August 20, 2010

To live with literature

At the end of the recent post-apocalyptic disaster movie, The Book of Eli ***SPOILER ALERT***, a character who has been known to be carrying the above-described book turns out to be carrying it in his head, to be recited and copied down. In like fashion, the library that survives the anti-book regime of Fahrenheit 451 consists of refugees in the woods who have memorized entire books and indeed have "become" the books they carry.

In our haste to overtone generations of rote learning we have thrown at least one baby out with the bathwater, namely the virtue of memorizing and reciting literature. We used to say we "learned it by heart," and truer words were never spoken. A poem we know from memory is one step closer to piercing our hearts with its beauty and truth.

Back when I wrote about great teachers in the movies, I can't believe I forgot the teachers, especially Hector, in Alan Bennett's play (and movie) The History Boys. Hector is not a wholly admirable character (nor is he meant to be), but he has a remarkable facility and command of poetry, summoning it on the instant to illustrate or illumine each points he makes. Some critics say his choices are less than perfect, but for heaven's sake, how many of us have enough of a repertory of poetry in our head than we can always call up le vers juste at all times. Heck, I've been teaching them for years, and I don't think I could get all the way through either Sonnet 29 or 116. But Hector can cough up Coleridge or Keats at the drop of a platitude.

I profess to love poetry, but I don't live with it and in it the way I would wish. I suppose that should be a resolution this year. After all, if the young man in the video below can recite "Litany" by Billy Collins with such clarity, expression, and above all, delight, can't my students and I be expected to do at least as well?

Just for comparison, here's the poet reading (not reciting) the same work:

Doesn't the little boy do a better job? Mostly because he's memorized it. Not only does he gain in facility and flow, but the words learned by heart come from the heart.

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