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“Mistakes are instructive”: Robert Pinsky on mis-memorizing poems

By Harriet Staff

In his feature over at Slate, Robert Pinsky tells us how it can be a good thing to mis-memorize our poems: “Mistakes are instructive,” he writes. It’s nice to see someone make a case for memorizing at all! “Is it ‘many recognitions dim and faint,’ you might ask yourself, or ‘many recognitions sad and faint’? And, before you can find the authoritative book and check, which one do you prefer? And why?” Pinsky continues, using Yeats for an example:

A dramatic demonstration of this principle came to me on a hike in the mountains years ago. My hiking companion and I did a little reciting along the way. I had a short poem by William Butler Yeats pretty accurately by heart, except for one word, in the fourth line:

“On Being Asked for a War Poem”

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of [something] who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

The way I said it to myself and my companion seemed right, except for the word I filled in—we were both pretty sure it wasn’t what Yeats wrote. “Glory” made some sense, and had the right rhythm, but it did not sound right:

He has had enough of glory who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

It could be considered glorious to please the two readers Yeats describes: As hypothetical (and somewhat stereotypical) characters, they represent those who have things other than poetry on their minds; to please them, in a way when they don’t expect it, could be considered a stroke of glory, in the way of art. And there’s an implicit contrast with the more expected use of “glory” in relation to war. But, no, despite such case-making, the word just doesn’t work very well. It is forced.

My fellow hiker had another suggestion that we both decided was better than “glory”:

He has had enough of striving who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

You can say for “striving” that it makes more sense than “glory,” and that it is in the right key for the poem, in keeping with the formality of an invitation declined. But there’s a flatness to “striving”: It doesn’t add much more in the way of thought or feeling than the place-holder “something.”

The two came off the mountain and found a bookstore. To find out which word was shockingly correct, read the full piece here.


Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 by Harriet Staff.