All My Heart for Speech
Many lines of poetry are so long-embedded in my memory that I find them appearing when I speak or write. Sometimes I am quoting. Sometimes I am unconsciously drawing from the reservoir. Some poets lend themselves to that, because they have found a way to say something important in words that seem almost inevitable. These words for the most part I made no effort to memorize. They simply found a place for themselves, and they stayed.
One poem I deliberately set out to memorize. In the eighth grade Sister Rosanne required us all to learn a poem by heart. I was assigned “To a Waterfowl,” by William Cullen Bryant. For years thereafter I regaled listeners with as much of it as they desired:
Whither, ’midst falling dew,While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursueThy solitary way?
The only other poet whose work I memorized was E.E. Cummings, because he called out to be heard aloud. That process happened naturally because I read so many of his poems aloud so many times. My undergraduate mentor Daniel Curley told us Cummings’s typography could act as a guide to reading aloud. In my interpretation it resulted in readings a great deal more spirited than Cummings’s own businesslike dispatches.
I heard him in a reading once at the University of Illinois. The small bald man with wise eyes was introduced by Curley, came onstage, sat in a chair behind a table that held a water pitcher, a glass, a microphone, and a manila folder of copies of the poems he planned to read. He regarded us.
“I will begin,” he announced, “and read for about forty minutes. There will be an intermission. Then I will come back out and read for about half an hour more. There will be no questions.”
He read his work as I have heard him read it on recordings. Dry. A brittle lyricism. No attempt to sell or underline the language. He treated it as factual.
I’d always imagined the poems more like songs. At the University of Cape Town in 1965, I actually did a performance of Cummings at a smoky quasi-beatnik campus coffee shop, although that was hardly the start of a performing career.
The great performer of poetry in my life has been Bill Nack, a classmate at the University of Illinois. Bill later went on to become a much-honored senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the biographer of Secretariat, but to this day he’s always memorizing a new poem or prose passage. When we were freshmen he presented me with the last page of The Great Gatsby, and followed it with the first page, which is not so commonly heard.
Bill can go indefinitely, and he would, whenever we met. That inspired my career as an impresario. I devised a program titled “A Concert in Words” for Bill to perform at the annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and again after dinner one night at Rancho la Puerta, a spa we are both fond of in Tecate, Mexico. I wasn’t surprised that the campus event drew a big crowd, but I had my doubts about Rancho. After rising at dawn for a mountain hike, were these people ready for poetry after dinner?
We filled a room. Bill dimmed the lights a little and read for an hour, mostly standing in front of the podium without a book. The campers demanded an encore. He read for another thirty minutes. Then he got a standing ovation and they marched on the concierge to demand a second performance. He read the next afternoon for another hour. His selections included Nabokov, Frost, Eliot, Yeats, and Cummings, of course. They enjoyed poetry more than they realized.
I envy him his energy and his love of the words. He brings a fresh non-academic enthusiasm to his performances. I think he stirs a dormant love of language in many people, in these days when so much flat and lifeless prose is published. Is it unthinkable that today’s grade schools require the memorization of a poem or two? Sister Rosanne assured us we would thank her in later years. When I meet old classmates from those years, I find she was correct.
Another friend of a lifetime is John McHugh, who was born in Sligo, Ireland — Yeats Country. When we met in the late sixties he was a reporter at the Chicago Daily News (where Carl Sandburg had once been the film critic), and I was at the Chicago Sun-Times. John had apparently ingested Yeats in volume, and often on late beery nights he would recite him at O’Rourke’s Pub in Chicago.
I remembered more of it than I realized. One night at the Telluride Film Festival, I was pressed into service to do an onstage interview with Peter O’Toole. We covered many of his films and adventures, and then I said: “I understand you have always wanted to play Jack Yeats.”
This was true, and he responded to it with a line or two by W.B. Yeats. They jarred something within me, and I answered with a few more lines of Yeats. Our eyes met, and something clicked. He quoted some more Yeats, and then I did, and we went on for ten minutes or so, and he laughed and said, “Well, I think we’ve done our job.”
Roger Ebert (1942–2013) was a journalist, screenwriter, and film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death. In 1975, he was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.