Monday, January 28, 2013

In Case of Gulag, Memorize Poetry

As I approach a milestone birthday, I've been trying to get my memory back into shape. Time was I could cite chapter and verse from a book under discussion. Over the last two months I've locked down four poems: “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats, “The Snowman” by Stevens, the sonnet “How soon hath time. . .” by Milton, and my own translation of Mandelstam's “Insomnia. Homer. Sails running tight. . .” (Clearly my next poem will be by a female poet.) In The New Yorker, Brad Leithauser writes about the joys and benefits of memorizing poetry:
My late colleague Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996, used to appall his students by requiring them to memorize something like a thousand lines each semester. He felt he was preparing them for the future; they might need such verses later in life. His own biography provided a stirring example of the virtues of mental husbandry. He’d been grateful for every scrap of poetry he had in his head during his enforced exile in the Arctic, banished there by a Soviet government that did not know what to do with his genius and that, in a symbolic embrace of a national policy of brain drain, expelled him from the country in 1972.
Joseph, you made their lives hell. I'm sure that each and every one of those students loves you for it today. So, my friends, remember this. In case you ever get shipped to the gulag, to toil in oblivion, memorize some damn poetry.

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