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Old 04-21-2001, 06:16 PM
MacArthur MacArthur is offline
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.
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Here is a good topic for Tim that's been much on my mind lately. A digression:

I'm just old enough to hail from a small town in Illinois where I received the benefits of a superior version of the traditional American primary education-- where you learn, because teachers teach.(I began to appreciate it in college, when students I respected confided they didn't know the difference between an adverb and an adjective.)

We were taught Poetry-- with a capital P, and separate from English...essentially by rote. We simply memorized-- it sounds dumb...but it really wasn't such a bad system. (Also we wrote-- rhyming poems, that, more or less scanned...everyone was expected to do this.)
Younger kids got Poe, Dickinson and Frost (Oh God! -- Frost famously commented on the hazards of being a "school-poet") and some Tennyson (I memorized Ulysses, once)-- older kids Whitman, Sandburg and Masters...and Cummings for Modern. I've retained an abiding distaste for most of these guys.

I swore I'd never memorize again. Many do-- I see it all the time at the coffee-shops. I always read from a text. What do you think of the advantages. I suspect there is a benefit, akin to reading aloud...which is enormously important.

[This message has been edited by MacArthur (edited April 22, 2001).]
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Old 04-21-2001, 09:26 PM
Jan D. Hodge Jan D. Hodge is offline
Join Date: Mar 2001
Location: Sioux City, IA
Posts: 894

Beethoven once supposedly chided a musician for playing one of his works "from memory," arguing that he should be looking at the score because he might see something new in it. Sounds like good advice to me.

I rarely memorize even my own poems, partly because I rework them so many times I am never quite sure where they stand, partly because I keep discovering ways to make them better--or at least different.

On the other hand, I have over the years a fair number of poems "by heart" from sheer repetition, and I encouraged students to memorize a few poems OF THEIR OWN CHOOSING because I do think it is a worthwhile discipline and because it's nice to have something to summon up and contemplate at odd or appropriate moments.

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Old 04-22-2001, 06:03 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Location: Fargo ND, USA
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Andrew, thanks for posing one of my favorite questions. In Renault's The Praise Singer his students address Simonides as Master of Memory, a title to which I aspire. At my first tutorial Warren assigned me the first 109 lines of Paradise Lost. Then he gave me a week to finish Book I. "But that's 900 lines!" I protested. "Boy, meter and rhyme are powerful mnemonic devices, and I'm training your memory. You need to have all the great poetry of the cannon ringing in your head. Then you'll automatically avoid mistakes in rhyme, rhythm or lineation." I went on to memorize about 30,000 lines for him. Unfortunately a third of that was Yeats, and I was thirty before I overcame that overwhelming influence, so there are pitfalls in memorization. And I remember my disgust at being forced to learn The Daffodils at age 11. My teacher should have assigned me the Intimations Ode, the Morte d'Arthur or the Eve of St. Agnes, which I would later have for the sheer love of them.

I perform only from memory, taking just an index card of titles to the podium. And I don't mean a coupla pomes at an open mike, but varied hour-long programs for a lengthy reading tour. It allows me matchless eye contact with my audience, which allows me to switch gears when I'm losing them. And they come away thinking that I at least think my speech is memorable. I once read with Kate Light, and afterwards I heard a little girl ask her mamma, "Why does that lady read from a book?" To me the notion of a poet reading from text is as foreign as that of Hamlet using a script or a great soloist using a score.

Wilbur always assigned his students Lycidas and says, "Those who complained the loudest had memorized the starting lineups of every team in the NFL." When he introduced my reading at the Frost Cottage in Key West he said "Murphy is the first poet to 'say' his poems in this garden since Robert last read here." I tried not to slip in my puddle as I approached that podium.
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Old 04-22-2001, 02:05 PM
Richard Wakefield Richard Wakefield is offline
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Location: Federal Way, Washington, USA
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One of my greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses as a musician was my ability to read music rather well. It opened up a huge amount of material for me, and it made me a popular duet partner with people who were technically much better than I. It also meant that I rarely had to commit a piece to memory, and as a result my interpretive range was severely limited; I played a piece pretty much the same way every time, adequately, perhaps, but with very little development or variation over time.
It seems to me that the poems I have by heart are the ones in which I continue to discover nuances. Freed from the tyranny of little marks on paper, I experience the sound much more purely, and it registers the small changes in my pulse, my respiration -- my visceral responses -- much more dramatically. Still, plain old laziness keeps me from setting out to memorize very much. It usually happens from sheer repetition.
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Old 04-23-2001, 12:15 AM
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John Beaton John Beaton is offline
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Location: Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, Canada
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My poetry experience is limited compared to others on this board. I never studied it formally other than at school and it has never had any official place in my life or work. It’s been a hobby.

Memorization at school was generally a chore and most kids, when forced to recite, would do so flatly. The effect was negative. Most didn’t understand the poems assigned, didn’t like reciting in front of the class, and didn’t like listening to others limp through the ordeal either. A few poems registered with me early on. When I was about eight, I bored the socks off my friends and neighbours by learning “The Ballad Of Sir Patrick Spens” as my Halloween piece. For my own enjoyment I learned some others like “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan” and quite a bit of Wordsworth. When I was sixteen, I sat a special exam, where one-third of the marks for the English portion were for recognition, and discussion of the context, of quotations from any part of English literature. In that year, on my own, I read a four-volume set of the works of Shakespeare and a rather thick poetry work – the English Parnassus - from end to end. That’s when my enjoyment of poetry and meter really started. I realized for the first time that Shakespeare’s work had lots of jokes in it. I didn’t memorize the poems in the sense of being able to recite them, but I read and re-scanned them enough to recognize quotes at the time, and to place them in context. Most of it has gone now, but certain poems and fragments remain. I can still hear clearly in my head lines like “Lars Porsena of Clusium, By the nine gods he swore That the great house of Tarquin Should suffer wrong no more”.

One other sound in my head from childhood is the lilt of the Gaelic language, and especially of preachers in the church on Sundays. I never understood any of it, but I sat through sermons, prayers, and psalms, and loved the sounds of them.

My next formative experience was a friend at University. He was a minister’s son who recited his own story-poems at parties. They could be ten to fifteen minutes long and he would have audiences spellbound with them. Usually, they were semi-performances, with lots of characterization and acting.

From then on nothing, but after a long gap I began playing with humorous poems, making them up for special occasions and reciting them with success – lots of audience laughter, and a lot of enjoyment on my part. Then my wife and family got involved in Scottish things such as highland dancing and Celtic fiddling and I started to get asked to be a humorous MC and to recite poetry at events in local theatres, etc. I stuck with humour, believing that people were not interested in serious poetry.

I have only been to a handful of poetry readings. Most involved “poets” reading serious poetry where nothing came alive. I found them utterly dreadful. The only person I’ve heard reading her own serious work in an inspiring way was Ann Michaels, just after she had written “The Weight of Oranges”. She read, but obviously had the works close to full memorization and she had thought a lot about intonation and expression. She also maintained eye contact with the audience. Some of her lines sent shivers up my spine, but the strength of the work was mainly in the quality of the writing, not in the delivery.

Then I started getting asked to recite at Burns’ Suppers. I had learned “Tam O’Shanter” in the past, but never recited it in public. It’s gone now. I became a great haggis addresser, but seldom got much beyond that because people wanted my own humorous poetry on the program, not more Burns, which few Canadians understand. I posted one of the more popular of these poems on this board a while back – “Big Ian”, from which my nickname is taken. (Porridgeface is Big Ian’s dog in that poem.) At some of these suppers, other presenters would read their own serious poetry, usually with disastrous results.

The Haggis, the humorous poetry, and my old university friend taught me that poetry either comes alive for an audience or it doesn’t. It’s virtually impossible for that to happen, in my view, without full memorization, and by that I don’t mean just the ability to remember the words. I mean the ability to recall them without thought or hesitation, to deliver them with exactly the right gestures and intonations without having to think about it, to get lost in the poem as you perform it, and to see and interact with the audience as you do so. It comes from hundreds of recitations in front of a mirror or with a tape-recorder, and as many audience performances as you can manage. I learn from each one.

I don’t try to memorize many poems at present. I have a small repertoire that I try to keep fresh and practiced. But I have lots that I could “get back” quickly if I had occasion to.

This isn’t going to be easy in written form, but the best attempt I can make to illustrate my view of the difference between “reading” and making it come alive through “memorized delivery” is to describe my experience with a Burns poem I did this year for the first time – A Man’s A Man For A’ That. It’s a song too, so there’s a melody to which it can be put. Here are the words:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head and a’ that?
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that
Our toils obscure, and a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that!

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin gray, and a’ that;
Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine,
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, and a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that!

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha’ struts, and stares, and a’ that,
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His ribband, star and a’ that;
The man of independent mind
He looks and laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke and a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might -
Gude faith, he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their dignities, and a’ that;
The pith o’ sense and pride o’ worth
Are higher rank than a’ that!

So let us pray that come it may, -
As come it will for a’ that -
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree, and a’ that.
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Here’s my paraphrased version with the Scottishisms translated to make any doubtful meanings clear:

Is there anyone who, because of honest Poverty,
Hangs his head in shame?
He’s a coward about his slavery. We pass him by.
We dare be poor for all that!
For all that, and all that
Our toils obscure, and all that,
Social title is but the result of wealth,
The Man’s the gold for all that!

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear coarse home-made woollen cloth, and all that;
Give fools their silks and knaves their wine,
A Man’s a Man for all that:
For all that, and all that,
Their tinsel show, and all that;
The honest man, though ever so poor,
Is king of men for all that!

You see that fellow called a lord,
Who struts, and stares, and all that,
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a fool for all that:
For all that, and all that,
His ribband, star and all that;
The man of independent mind
He looks and laughs at all that.

A prince can appoint a belted knight,
A marquis, duke and all that;
But an honest man’s above his might -
Good grief, he better not forget that!
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that;
The pith of sense and pride of worth
Are higher rank than all that!

So let us pray that come it may, -
As come it will for all that -
That Sense and Worth, over all the earth,
May rise in triumph, and all that.
For all that, and all that,
It’s coming yet for all that,
That Man to Man, the world over,
Shall brothers be for all that.

OK, so you understand it now. Try reading it (the original) a few times out loud. See how good you can make it sound.

Now, here are my notes on how it went across on “memorized delivery”: Try saying it this way, standing up, out loud. (Just imagine the music and lights.)

Start. Lights dimmed. My wife plays the melody once through on the fiddle, slowly. I begin. She keeps playing. I don’t keep time to her playing. It’s now background. Head low, eyes glaring at the audience. Low voice. Slow.

Is there for honest Poverty (Emphasize “honest”. Raise voice as in a question.)
That hings his head and a’ that? (Slight drop in head angle, keeping eye contact.)
The coward-slave, we pass him by, (Look down and to the side. Extend hand towards something low and cowering. Show distaste in facial expression. Wave him off with hand gesture. Emphasize “him”)
We dare be poor for a’ that! (Head up, defiant. Emphasize “dare” in a deep strong voice. Strong eye contact with audience.)
For a’ that, and a’ that (Open hand gesture on one side then the other. Eye contact with audience on each flank)
Our toils obscure, and a’ that, (Hunch slightly, loose fists touching and held close in front of chest. Lower voice. Emphasize and elongate the second syllable of “obscure”, with determination.)
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, (Stand upright and bold again. Hit the first syllable of “guinea’s” hard with distaste.)
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that!( Emphasize “Man’s” – catch the “a” as far back in your throat as possible, to catch a hint of growl - and make a proud fist at shoulder level as you say it.)

What though on hamely fare we dine, (Slow and humble again. Eye contact, asking the question.)
Wear hoddin gray, and a’ that; (With two fingers pull a piece of fabric out from your shoulder , showing what you’re wearing..)
Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine, (Strike a foppish pose on “fools their silks” and a head back quaffing one on “knaves their wine”.)
A Man’s a Man for a’ that: (Again, say “Man”, especially the second one, forcefully, growlingly.)
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, and a’ that; (Hold hand up as if holding a piece of tinsel between thumb and middle finger, then make a discarding motion. Facial expression and tone are disparaging.)
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,{Change in tone – quiet but determined again. Strong eye contact. Hands open and forward.)
Is king o’ men for a’ that! (Flick head back and up in pride on “King” . Make a low fist and hit the “K” hard.)

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord, (Extend arm and indicate his direction with backhanded flick of the hand and look to the back of the audience. Voice roused and accusatory.)
Wha’ struts, and stares, and a’ that, (Turn sideways, head high, one arm bent behind back like a military officer. Step stiffly on “strut”. On “stares”, turn eyes to audience, still strutting. Scan front row, locking eye contact with some individuals and moving along. Draw out “stares” to give time.)
Though hundreds worship at his word, (New pose. Hands as in prayer looking upwards from humble position.)
He’s but a coof for a’ that: (Explosive change. Arm extends sharply and points at the back audience area where you indicated his position. Eyes looking down the arm like a gunsight. Almost shout “coof”.)
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His ribband, star and a’ that; (Indicate insignia on chest and shoulder with hand motions. Disparaging again.)
The man of independent mind (Look thoughtful. Refresh eye contact. Cock head and tap side of it wisely at “independent mind”.)
He looks and laughs at a’ that.(Pause on “looks” and look around audience making strong eye contact. Throw back head. Deliver “laughs” with the sound and facial expression of a laugh.)

A prince can mak a belted knight, (On “prince”, point to a high position at the back of the hall and look at it. On “mak’”, extend arm forward as though knighting someone with a sword. On “belted knight”, hold hand face out and towards the right side of the hall to indicate the knight’s position, lower than the prince’s.)
A marquis, duke and a’ that; (Move arm to indicate position of “marquis” in the centre and “duke” to the left.)
But an honest man’s aboon his might – (Strong crescendo here. Arm is drawn back as if to throw a stone, then flung forward in an accusatory pointing action, ending up with you leaning forward and pointing to position of prince, high and in the centre. Explosion comes on “boon”. Eyes fierce.)
Gude faith, he mauna fa’ that! (With strong aggression. Shake pointing arm.)
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their dignities, and a’ that; (Throw back head and look sideways as you say “dignities” with mock precision and an undertone of disgust.)
The pith o’ sense and pride o’ worth (Make fist at “pith” and thump chest with it at “pride”, ending up with arm across chest.)
Are higher rank than a’ that! (Point above prince’s position at “higher”, then wave away prince’s and nobles’ positions with a backhanded sweep at “a’ that”.)

So let us pray that come it may, - (Clasp hands and look towards the ceiling at “pray”. Make and shake two low fists with bent arms at “come it may”. Renew eye contact. )
As come it will for a’ that – (Two flexing motions of fisted arms, then open hands, holding them waist high.
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth, (At “a’ the earth” expand arms outwards, still with open hands. Emphasize “a’”.)
May bear the gree, and a’ that.(Explosion again. Lean back and punch at the sky. Shout “bear the gree” loud enough to startle the audience.)
For a’ that, and a’ that, (Hand gestures to one side then to the other.)
It’s comin’ yet for a’ that, (Point up in the air with bent right arm as in an instructive pose while making strong eye contact.)
That Man to Man, the world o’er, (Crescendo. Deep and loud on “Man”, again trying to get a growl in each. Thump right chest with fist on first “Man” and hold fist there. Thump left chest with fist on second “Man”. Expand arms on “the world o’er”.)
Shall brothers be for a’ that. (Lock hands in front of chest as in a handshake at “brothers be”, then fling them apart at “for a’ that”.)

My wife slips back to start of the melody and plays once through. Singer comes up. My wife plays melody again. I shout each line quickly and the singer sings it, beckoning with her arms for the audience to join in. They hear me shout the lines and respond, just like congregation and presenter in those old Gaelic sermons. We sing the first and last verse this way.

Lights come back on. The audience is visibly shaken and emotional. They're not a poetry crowd and they didn't expect to be affected this way, but they know they've heard something powerful.

The main reason is that it’s an incredibly powerful poem. The working man, standing proud against the establishment of the day, defying it, predicting hope and triumph. The whole dream of global socialism encapsulated in so few words – “That Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.” But the reciter’s job is to bring that out. You can’t do it with your head down and a bit pf paper in your hand. Memorization’s a necessary part of it, but there’s much more to it than that. The beauty of memorization to me is that, after you’ve done it, you’re free to work on the delivery.

Now reconsider your earlier reading of it. Could you really do it justice that way?

On Jan’s note, I’d say this. I find that working on delivery in this sort of way is a great help in fixing wording problems with your own work.


[This message has been edited by Porridgeface (edited April 23, 2001).]
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Old 04-23-2001, 06:29 AM
drchazan drchazan is offline
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: Jerusalem, Israel
Posts: 477

This is a great thread - thanks, Andrew!

Beethoven once supposedly chided a musician for playing one of his works "from memory," arguing that he should be looking at the score because he might see something new in it. Sounds like good advice to me.
Let's not forget that Beethoven went deaf. If he didn't see it, he couldn't "hear" it.

I had the benefit of a slightly more "progressive" education, in probably a slightly larger Illinois town than Andrew (Evanston).

We never had to learn anything by heart, unless we were drama students (which I was, but that's another matter altogether). While I'm sure that my parents thought that this was a good thing, I'm not sure if I wouldn't have benefited from having to commit some poetry to memory. Certainly, I'm sure my skills in writing metrical poetry have suffered from this hole in my education.

Since I don't have any opportunity to read my poetry in any public forums, I haven't needed to memorize any of my poems. However, I do think that my theatrical training has made me do this to some extent anyway - instinctively. It seems to me that the process of learning a poem of your own by heart would also become another way to edit and improve your poetry. It also seems to me that the process of learning any other person's work improves your own understanding and involvement in the work itself. If I apply this to plays, for instance, I certainly couldn't ever act a part that I didn't memorize my lines for. The better I know my lines, the better I can feel those lines, adjust my voice to invoke the type of expression and emotion that I believe the author wanted to have portrayed. Does this make sense?

So, that's my take on this.

Thanks for... um... rope-ing me into this forum!

Just one person's opinion.
Davida Chazan
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Old 04-23-2001, 08:01 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,807

Po, As we say in therapy, "Thanks for sharing." Do you sing it in march or waltz time? I do it both ways, but mine is devoid of gesture. I resolutely grip the podium which prevents my shaking hands from straying into pockets, so my voice has to do all the work. At the risk of horn-tooting, I want to share with everyone on this thread the most delightful thing ever written about me, a "review" of one of my recitations at UC Santa Barbara last fall. The student, John Bolin, is a Central Valley farm kid who studies with the poet John Ridland.

Murphy and the Ghost of the Scop

I was fortunate enough to get a front-row seat for Timothy Murphy's
recitation last Thursday. I had read a few poems in Set the Ploughshare
Deep and The Deed of Gift, yet was unsure what to expect. Having been in
another class when he recited his verse the day before, I knew only what
others had told me, yet what I did know was impressive: that he is a man
who, as he would state at the close of his recitation, sees poetry "from the
same vantage point as the Beowulf Poet." "To see the Beowulf Poet recite
Beowulf, I thought, can it get any better? This man must be a giant!"
Somewhere in my mind a dim figure, his heavy bones hung with mail and
scarred leather, lifted a flagon of mead behind a podium.
His appearance, as he stepped into the room, somewhat dissapointed me. He
was a wiry, pale-skinned man with a handful of thinning red hair. A pair of
thick glasses which seemed too large hung over his face, obscuring his vague
blue eyes. It was these eyes, however, that first caught my attention while
the calm voice of an academic began softly. "I am going to follow
Anonymous, starting in the twentieth century, and tracing the path backwards
in time." He lifted his chin and recited a rhyme in a Brooklyn accent.
Speaking poetry, there was determination in the voice as it rose and a spark
in the eyes that startled me. A girl behind me coughed nervously. I sat up
In the hour that was to follow, Timothy Murphy wound his way back through
several centuries, lighting on distinctive poems that protruded from the sea
of his thought. From the seventeenth century he pulled Sir Patrick Spens.
Murphy mentioned that as a young folk-singer, the Scottish Border Ballads
were instrumental in drawing him into serious poetry. Afterward, I asked
him why these ballads specifically, and he answered that their stories and
their music intruiged him, much as the music of Beowulf would later
"intoxicate him." Indeed, Murphy's own voice as he recited the famous
seventh stanza
Late late yestre'en I saw the new moon
Wi' the auld moon in her arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm.
filled it with new significance. It was a strong voice, strength being one
of the qualities I was increasingly struck with during Murphy's performance.
He was a master at conveying meaning through inflection, pitch, volume,
and sheer will. Fusing his experiences in drama and song, Murphy was the
closest thing I think we will ever see to The Scop (without the aid of lots
of mead). His scottish accent was good.
From the sixteenth century, Murphy recited work by Thomas the Rhymer. This
was the first poetry that drew on words and pronunciations that were
unfamiliar to me in their antiquity. At Murphy's suggestion, I let the
words run past me, some of them sticking in my mind and evoking specific
meaning, others delighting me with the purely abstract quality of their
feel, their weight, their tint. It was Murphy's recitation of Alison,
however, a fourteenth century love poem, which really lost me. In spite of
my ignorance of the words, Alison was, next to Beowulf's funeral dirge, the
poem which I enjoyed the most. Interestingly, Murphy said that Alison is a
poem that evidences the collision between the two halves of English; the
Germanic parent language, and words from the French and Latin. Murphy also
linked the opening stanza of Alison to Chaucer's General Prologue, which he
stated was drawn from this older, and in his words, "better" poem.
The litel fowl hath hire wil
On hire leod to singe
Smoking outside, he confided to me and several other students that "leod" is
often mistranslated as "language." "Leod is clearly 'lute'" he said in a
single smoky exhalation.
Finally, Murphy came to Beowulf, which he recited first in the original,
then from his translation. His voice thundered and rose, striking the
stresses accurately, resolutely, until the words, all of which were lost on
my ear, became a single fabric of ringing sound, linked together by ceasura
and alliteration like the metal hooks in a shirt of mail. Murphy's
recitation of Beowulf, in both languages, was nothing short of astounding.
I can only describe it as the primevil synthesis of a rock concert, sermon,
drama and an old testament prophet's doomsaying. At times, looking directly
into my eyes and leaning precariously over the small podium, his voice
pealing out the hard syllables of the dirge, Murphy was genuinely
frightening. Not only was Murphy's deliverance of the poem excellent, but
his translation was superb in the modern English. Murphy stated that he
made all efforts to follow a few ground rules in his translation: retain the
four-beat line of the original, mark a clear ceasura halving each line,
triple alliterate every line possible (when this was not possible, to link
the alliteration of the line to the line before or after it), straighten out
the germanic syntax, and "abjure" words from French and the latinate
I give Murphy's performance two thumbs up. After reciting Beowulf, Murphy
invited questions and spoke a little about Robert Penn Warren. Apparently,
"Red" so honed Murphy's memory that he is able to write a Shakespearian
sonnet entirely in his head. He doesn't write on paper or a computer.
Everything is set down on the vast scroll of his memory. Murphy's wit came
out in his closing comments. Quoting Robert Penn Warren, Murphy said,
"Rhyme and meter are powerful mnemonic devices". Reflecting for a moment,
he added, "I will be in the smoking section if any of you have any
questions. Tobacco is a powerful mnemonic device as well." Outside, after
I had congratulated him on his performance, we talked a little about
farming, the land, and the rhythm of our language. As he flicked his last
cigarette into a flowerbed and turned to leave, smiling sagely, I realized
that Murphy had again become a simple man, a man intimate with the land and
words. I was glad of that.
__________________________________________________ __________
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Old 05-10-2001, 04:32 PM
robert mezey robert mezey is offline
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Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Claremont CA USA
Posts: 573

To each his own. I've always made my students
memorize a hundred or so lines a semester (which
seems a huge amount to them), just as I had to
memorize a great deal of verse in elementary and
highschool---for which I'm still grateful. A few
students always say they were glad to be made to
get some poems by heart, that they understood them
in new ways by having them there. Since highschool
I have almost never sat down and memorized a poem,
though I must know many hundreds. As Frost said,
"I long ago decided that if it didn't stick to me,
I wouldn't stick to it." I just find that if I've
fallen in love with a poem and read it a few times
(or a few hundred times), I usually find I know it.
I've been to a number of readings where the poet
said all of his poems by heart (Jim Wright and Tim
Murphy come immediately to mind, both very good
readers) and to many more where the poet read from
a book or sheaf of mss. Some of each kind were
excellent, a lot of each kind were godawful. Most
poets I know have lots of bits and pieces and passages
in their memory but not many whole poems. Others,
like Wright and Heaney (and no doubt Murphy & Sullivan)
could recite all night long. I like to read from
my book at readings because it helps me to recall
and re-enter the emotions the poem was written out
of, but I can often raise my eyes and look at people
in the audience for a quatrain or two. Oddly enough,
although I know a great many poems by heart, very
few of them are mine. As one of the poets said, it's
partly because I'm constantly tinkering with many of
them, even after they're in a book. It's certainly
not out of modesty, just an odd quirk. (And I might
add, I know only a half dozen poems in free verse
and those tend to be short. Once Don Justice and I
tried to piece together Williams' wonderful "To Elsie"
from our joint memories and we finally did get it all,
but it took a while.)

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Old 05-11-2001, 12:13 PM
graywyvern graywyvern is offline
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: dallas
Posts: 718

i was once at a round table discussion in which
many learned things were being said about poetry.
at one point a member of the audience, in answer
to some point that apparently required a stronger
reply than any in the panel was capable of, recited
the whole of a pretty long poem from memory. the
panel was reduced to silent consternation. none of
us had ever attempted such a feat.
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Old 05-12-2001, 06:59 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
Lariat Emeritus
Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,807

I recall only a few thousand lines from the tens of thousands I learned in youth, but that's because my own poems have crowded out better ones. Professor Mezey is entirely too modest. He can recite the perfect poem for any occasion. I believe it's a knack easily acquired in youth. Look at all the song lyrics young people know by heart!

Several years ago Professor David Mason sent me an exceptionally gifted lad, Aaron Poochigian, for two years of independent study. Shortly into our tutorial (which followed my own with Mr. Warren) I asked "What have you memorized for me this week?" Aaron proceeded to belt out (I kid you not) Lycidas, Elegy in a Country Churchyard, Grecian Urn, Nightingale, To Autumn, West Wind, and the Intimations Ode. I was terribly impressed, but Aaron said modestly "Well, I wanted to do some Odes this week."
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