If I understand the secret thesis of Clive James’s intriguingly meandering essay “A Stretch of Verse [November 2012],” it is that poems of formidable length are not really worth the effort to memorize; rather, our attention tends to cohere around the “hit,” the dazzling moment(s) within those poems. The idea that poems exist only for the page is lamentably myopic, and part of the predicament of poetry’s marginalization in American culture.
At first, I wanted to attribute this denigration of memorization to his sample of poems, primarily drawn from the white British tradition (with a foray into Italy to snag Dante and Ungaretti). But many American poets (Dana Gioia, Robert Pinsky, Annie Finch, Jerome Rothenberg, Patricia Smith, to name five) are as enamored of the enchantment of memorization as their counterparts throughout the globe — the indigenous peoples of Australia and their mapping songlines, Indian poets’ epic recitations of the Mahabharata, the bardic recitations of Yeats in Ireland, etc. It is the embodiment of poetry that makes it, finally, something larger than books, a power that locates and empowers at a moment when the permanence of books and primacy of place are increasingly threatened.
But what I’d like to focus on is James’s conclusion. In his words, “in the old Soviet Union, where, for obvious reasons, there was a great emphasis on memorizing contemporary poems, the manuscript still counted. People remembered things only until they could get them safely written down.” It is indeed true that during the Stalinist terror, Akhmatova would write, “we live in a pre-Gutenbergian epoch,” and that Nadezhda Mandelstam would secure her husband Osip’s memory as a great poet by having all his poems by heart. However, that memory was something more than a temporary repository; it made Nadezhda a living witness to words that would last far beyond the time that they could be “safely written down.”
The Russians are famous for their formidable recitation powers, summoning Pushkin and Lermontov with astonishing regularity at dinner parties or to conclude points of argument. It has nothing to do with merely writing them down.
The contemporary Russian poet Sergey Gandlevsky once told me that he composed his poems, line by line, in his mind, over the course of months. To this day, his two-hour-long readings are hypnotic events, recitations of his life-work, and remind us that poetry can be not only “a stretch of verse,” but an alternate way of being.