Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem
Partway through Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders, Ponyboy Curtis (played by C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) are hiding out in an abandoned church in the country because Johnny knifed and accidentally killed a guy in a late-night fight. In the church, separated from the pain and gang violence of their low-income lives, the teens can be most fully themselves, and they spend their time reading Gone with the Wind to each other as they wait for Dallas (Matt Dillon) to show up and say the coast is clear.
One morning, the blond-haired and poetically-inclined Ponyboy gets up early and watches the sunrise through the mist. He is joined by Johnny, who remarks, “Too bad it can’t stay like that all the time.” Ponyboy responds, “Nothing gold can stay,” and proceeds to recite in full Robert Frost’s well-known poem of the same title:
Nature’s first green is gold,Her hardest hue to hold.Her early leaf’s a flower;But only so an hour.Then leaf subsides to leaf.So Eden sank to grief,So dawn goes down to day.Nothing gold can stay.
When Johnny asks, “Where’d you learn that?” Ponyboy replies, “Robert Frost wrote it. I always remembered it because I never quite knew what he meant by it.”
This is a memorable and moving scene (it is also in Hinton’s novel), and Ponyboy’s interesting answer — a non-answer, really — raises a number of questions. Why does Ponyboy not answer Johnny’s question (“Where’d you learn that”)? Why do the film and novel cite Frost in particular? What do we make of Ponyboy’s reason for remembering the poem (“because I never quite knew what he meant by it”)? And — the apparent question to which Johnny wants an answer — where and how did Ponyboy come to memorize “Nothing Gold Can Stay”?
Although it can’t answer all of these questions, Catherine Robson’s absorbing, amazingly-detailed, and at times startling new book Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem is certainly a good place to start. Indeed, in tracing the rise and decline of poetry memorization and recitation as a common assignment in British and American schools from the 1870s through much of the twentieth century, Heart Beats reveals not just how central the pedagogical practice was to an era of mass education in both nations, but also its unanticipated effects on poems, on cultural practices we wouldn’t be inclined to link to poetry, and in the lives of people like Ponyboy.
It so happens that Ponyboy and Johnny are among the final generation of students who would have experienced mandatory poetry memorization and recitation as a common element of their American education. (In fact, so was Hinton, who was fifteen years old when she began writing The Outsiders and eighteen when it was published.) As Robson reveals in part one, which traces the practice’s history from pedagogical and institutional standpoints, poetry memorization was freighted with unusual importance up through the forties in Britain and the sixties of Johnny and Ponyboy’s America. For many reasons (it was justified as a type of brain calisthenics that also introduced students to literature, enlisted them in stories central to national identity, rid them of their working-class or regional accents, etc.), poetry memorization and recitation served not only as a benchmark of individual student achievement, but of teacher and school achievement as well. Students, teachers, and schools were all rewarded or punished, sometimes in No Child Left Behind-like ways, for how well they executed this component of what was essentially, if not always formally, a common core of the curriculum. In the parlance of today’s educators, poetry recitation was oftentimes a “high stakes” assessment tool, and many parties — not just individual, clammy-handed grade-schoolers standing in front of the classroom — had an investment in how well students performed.
The longstanding importance of poetry memorization and recitation couldn’t fail, Heart Beats thus argues, to have had far-reaching effects, three of which Robson explores in part two’s case studies centered, respectively, on “Casabianca,” by Felicia Hemans, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” by Thomas Gray, and “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna,” by Charles Wolfe. Arguing that today’s audiences “will never feel the beat [of these poems] with quite the same urgency” as students once did, Robson puns on the prosodic term “beat” and begins her “Casabianca” case study by tracing the common threat of corporal punishment — the threat of a literal beating — that could result from unsuccessful memorization. Therein (and via a lesser-known Elizabeth Bishop poem also titled “Casabianca”) she finds a figure for the individual child’s experience of standing anxious and alone in front of the classroom seeking the teacher’s approval: the main character of “Casabianca” itself. The poem is perhaps the most commonly memorized of the era and is about the grisly death of a school-age boy waiting faithfully for his father’s permission to leave his post at the burning deck of a ship in battle:
The boy stood on the burning deckWhence all but he had fled;The flame that lit the battle’s wreckShone round him o’er the dead.Yet beautiful and bright he stood,As born to rule the storm;A creature of heroic blood,A proud, though child-like form.
In fear of the rod, cane, switch, ruler, paddle, or hand, generations of students standing “beautiful and bright” in front of the classroom relied on — indeed clung to — the poem’s meter as a mnemonic handhold, and the cumulative force of their desperation had a much more far-reaching secondary effect on the poem’s critical fortunes. Students so over-exaggerated the poem’s sing-songy rhythm, Robson contends, that the shapers of the literary canon in the twentieth century — onetime students who were perhaps assigned the poem to memorize and recite themselves — were unable to hear anything but the “jog-trot meter” of the poem as it was performed in school and thus dismissed the piece and its actual metrical variety as unsophisticated and unworthy of study by adults. The critical reception of a memorization standard like “Casabianca,” Robson thus argues, may have had as much or more to do with “the particular circumstances of its assimilation into a culture” (i.e., recitation in school) than with the features of the text itself.
While the “Casabianca” case study focuses on the relationship between the student’s body, poetic meter, and the subsequent impact of memorization on the poem’s critical legacy, the following chapter on Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” centers on the relationship between the poem and the student’s inner life — specifically on the intellectual and emotional contradictions experienced by the upwardly-mobile British “scholarship boy” who would have been charged, near the end of his education, with memorizing Gray’s long and difficult poem that justifies why the poor and uneducated (like the scholarship boy himself) benefit from being kept poor and uneducated. Robson writes:
Although the successfully memorized poem undoubtedly played a role as acquired cultural capital, a pleasing and often permanently possessed symbol of that expertise that might enable an individual to rise first within the educational, and then the social, system, it also carried the potential to act as a persistent reminder of the school’s ability to alienate an individual from his or her earliest associations.
Furthermore, a poem like Gray’s could also serve as a depressing reminder that despite the scholarship boy’s individual achievement, the education system and the texts it assigns don’t necessarily have as their goal the empowerment of the lower classes in general.
Something of this dynamic informs the melancholy nature of the scene I’ve cited from The Outsiders. As Robson explains was often the case with rote memorization, Ponyboy appears to have learned “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” but he hasn’t been taught how to understand it; as plenty of examples in Heart Beats also attest, it is only later in life — as figured by the literal daybreak in the movie — that the memorized poem’s possible meanings dawn on him. (“I never quite knew [until now] what he meant by it.”) So, even as school has given him a “permanently possessed” symbol of his learning, it has nevertheless also given him a metaphor painfully naturalizing his own entrance into what Gray’s “Elegy” calls “the short and simple annals of the poor.” In this context, then, it is thus possible to hear Johnny’s question as referring not to the poem itself (“Where’d you learn that [poem]?”) or to the site of its learning (after all, Johnny would have had experiences memorizing poems in school himself). Instead, the “that” of Johnny’s question refers to Ponyboy’s depressing realization about the inevitably frustrated dreams of the lower and working classes that his teachers would have rewarded him for learning by — and taking to — heart.
The “Casabianca” and “Elegy” studies are ambitious, almost impossibly researched, and at times entertaining; Robson can spin a helluva yarn telling the reception histories and social lives of the poems she considers. For this reader, though, the third case study (the shortest in Heart Beats) makes the most astonishing and perhaps most audacious claims in the book. Here, Robson argues for the impact of “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” — Charles Wolfe’s “one-hit wonder” that became a standard recitation piece — on the development and formalization of modern memorial practices for common soldiers who, at earlier points in history, would have been buried in unmarked graves. The mass memorization of this thirty-two-line poem in schools — and especially the phrase “no useless coffin,” which became a sort of meme quoted by individuals, in newspaper obituaries, and elsewhere, especially during the U.S. Civil War — offered readers a sort of “cultural shorthand” that helped to express and spread the belief that rank-and-file soldiers deserved the type of commemoration that the hero of Wolfe’s poem himself deserved but did not get. Far from “[making] nothing happen” (as W.H. Auden wrote of poetry in his own memorial poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”), the “functional presence of Wolfe’s poem in the minds of ordinary individuals,” Robson argues, was instrumental in “the raising of a million stones” marking the graves of soldiers in national cemeteries on both sides of the Atlantic. Amazing? You bet.
In his now classic study Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Walter J. Ong traces the differences in communication forms and dynamics between oral and literate cultures, distinguishing between the fixity and abstracted knowledge of print (which “sets up conditions for ‘objectivity,’ in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing”) and the “situational, operational frames of reference” of orality and its real-time, personal exchanges. “Written words,” he argues:
are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words.
For Ong, the values of oral and print economies exist in relation to one another in the modern, Western world of widespread literacy, where most oral communication is in some way underwritten, made possible by, or in a sort of dialogue with, the technology and authority of print. No matter how oral in nature Ponyboy’s recitation of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” appears to be, for example (it’s in the context of a single moment and spoken to and for Johnny in a real setting that includes their friendship, their shared experiences, the rising sun, their class affiliation, and so on), it is nevertheless a rendition of a printed source text, and insofar as we admire (or check for) his word-for-word fidelity to Frost’s original, it is measured by, or subject to, the values of print.
I bring up Ong and the relationship between oral and print economies because, for all of its historical reach, and only partly justifiable by virtue of its focus on the classroom, Heart Beats doesn’t say much, if anything, about the function or status of the memorized poem in today’s world. If we view Robson’s history from a slightly different perspective, however — not from the perspective of educational history, but from the perspective of media studies or media history — then the material in Heart Beats proves to be revealing about how and why we now value (or don’t value) various types of poetries in the ways that we do.
Among its other functions, the memorized poem in the schoolroom becomes a crucial intersection of oral and print economies, as the spoken display of one’s mastery enlists values associated with orality (bodily carriage, gesture, intonation, and elocution) even as word-for-word fidelity to the original, printed text remains the primary measure of achievement; as Heart Beats shows, students could get away with exaggerating the meter of “Casabianca” because it was most important for them to remember the printed poem’s exact wording. Such an interplay between aspects of oral and print economies worked to transition students — especially students like scholarship boys (or like Johnny and Ponyboy) raised in environments where the values of orality were oftentimes rewarded more than they would have been in educated, bourgeois society — away from a comparatively “primitive” mode of communication and toward a more sophisticated, “advanced” one; one might say that, in the process, students became more and more “book smart.” The process of memorizing and reciting (after all, proof of memorization could have been achieved by writing the poem down) thus helped to segue children from the lived, relational values associated with orality and into the abstract and impersonal knowledge systems facilitated by print.
The emphasis on print-based values (duplication, fidelity to the text) structuring the memorization and recitation of poetry during the period which Robson studies — and which Heart Beats gives us a chance to see more clearly than we’ve ever seen, perhaps — did not lose influence with the decline of poetry memorization as a widespread pedagogical activity. Having gained momentum and come to seem even more natural thanks to the privileged place of rote memorization, those values still inform, albeit in somewhat refracted ways, how we relate to certain sorts of poetry (and poetry delivery systems) differently than to others today. Publication in the little magazine or the slim volume, for example, is a far more “credible” sign of a poet’s accomplishment — far more likely to elicit respect, scholarly consideration, and even promotion or tenure — than poetry in performance or other non-print contexts, historical or contemporary. The same poem is likely to acquire a credibility when presented in Poetry that it loses if “interpreted” on air by Garrison Keillor. This is one reason why poets with print-based, rather than performance-based, résumés “read” at presidential inaugurations. And it’s a reason why many people are predisposed to judge slam poetry, in which memorization is de rigueur, as the aesthetically uninteresting work of amateurs. (Harold Bloom, for instance, dismissed slam poetry in distinctly acoustic and infantilizing terms as “rant and nonsense.”)
I could go on — citing the historical lack of respect afforded to oral forms of poetry such as spoken-word poetry, HBO’s Def Poetry, or popular music lyrics including hip-hop and rap — but my point is that, more likely than not, poetries distributed in, incorporating, or appealing to oral/aural formats are tainted by affiliation with the values of the worlds of oral communication out of which people are meant to be educated. Memorized or oral poetries now associate in our minds with childhood, emotion, occasional verse, amateurism, popular or mass culture, lack of aesthetic sophistication, and knowing “by heart” rather than objectively by mind and print; published by Disney’s Hyperion Books and featuring lots of enjoyable watercolor illustrations by Jon J. Muth, Caroline Kennedy’s 2013 anthology Poems to Learn by Heart feeds right into this mix. Alternately, poetries inclined toward print tend to associate with notions of professional authorship, literariness, complexity, and impersonal judgment on the part of their editors and readers.
Such distinctions owe much to the history Heart Beats brings into view, and I’ll venture to say that digital media — especially in tandem with other non-print media like movies and television shows that digital formats make increasingly available — are currently putting those distinctions under paradigm-changing pressure. Indeed, the rise in poetry memorization and/or recitation over the past decade, ranging from Poetry Out Loud competitions to Def Poetry, all sorts of YouTube videos, and Disney’s celebrity-studded “A Poem Is ... ” video series that premiered during National Poetry Month 2011 and serves as a sort of companion to Poems to Learn by Heart, may be read in one way or another as responses to a weakening print hegemony put under pressure by the emergence of digital media. How digital media will ultimately affect poetry as it relates to print and oral communication economies, not to mention new or revised educational theories and practices, has yet to become clear. But when it does, I’d wager that what Robson claims in her “Casabianca” study — that a poem may be more likely than we think to acquire or shed value in relation to “the particular circumstances of its assimilation into a culture” — will still hold true.
The management of the relationship between oral and print value economies comes into view most clearly (at least in the context of what Charles Bernstein has called “official verse culture”) in the phenomenon of the professional poetry “reading,” which uses a print-based term to describe what is otherwise a recitation for the purposes of saving the endeavor from its affiliation with the oral. The last thing a professional poet wants is to risk being linked to the history of recitation and its accumulated values, and so he or she goes through a set of gestures meant to anchor his or her performance in print. She reads in a more or less standardized, even impersonal, style with little intonation and few if any theatrical gestures. She disengages from the work itself by not memorizing it. She makes a show of displaying, paging through, or talking about her books or manuscripts. And she references the poem’s social ties not in regard to the immediacy of what Ong calls the “existential present” (i.e., the moment of the poetry reading itself), but, rather, in regard to its biographical impetus, moment of inspiration, or compositional process.
All of which brings me back to Robert Frost, Frost’s special status in American literature, and the reason why it might be impossible to imagine Ponyboy reciting a poem by anyone else. It is fitting, perhaps, that Caroline Kennedy — the only living child of President John F. Kennedy — should edit and publish Poems to Learn by Heart, as her father’s inauguration on January 20, 1961, served as the occasion for Frost’s performance of “The Gift Outright,” probably the most famous recitation of a memorized poem in U.S. history. As many people now know, the eighty-six-year-old Frost didn’t plan on delivering “The Gift Outright.” He had prepared another poem, “Dedication,” for the occasion but, baffled by high winds that made it difficult for him to hold the paper in place and blinded by the sun’s glare off the snow (and no doubt off the white paper), he had to give up on reading “Dedication” and instead recited from memory “The Gift Outright.” He’d written “The Gift Outright” more than twenty years earlier, published it in the Spring 1942 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and included it in A Witness Tree, which won him his fourth Pulitzer Prize in 1943. He even featured the poem in his 1942 Christmas card, the eighth in a series of annual holiday greetings he would continue to produce until at least 1962 in partnership with Spiral Press printer Joseph Blumenthal. Here’s the most common version of the poem:
The land was ours before we were the land’s.She was our land more than a hundred yearsBefore we were her people. She was oursIn Massachusetts, in Virginia,But we were England’s, still colonials,Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,Possessed by what we now no more possessed.Something we were withholding made us weakUntil we found out that it was ourselvesWe were withholding from our land of living,And forthwith found salvation in surrender.Such as we were we gave ourselves outright(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)To the land vaguely realizing westward,But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,Such as she was, such as she would become.
What’s so noteworthy about Frost’s recitation at Kennedy’s inauguration is not, I would argue, his ability to recall “The Gift Outright,” but the fact that he gave up the printed poem he had available and recited from memory instead — inclining, on a national stage, away from the values of print and toward the values of orality. Indeed, in keeping with the living, situational values of oral communication that occurs, as Ong explains, “at a specific time in a real setting,” Frost even changed the ending of “The Gift Outright” to meet the situation at hand. He had altered the ending before in a series of interesting tense changes — it ended “might become” when it appeared in VQR, “would become” in A Witness Tree, and “will become” in other versions — and he did so again in 1961, hugely extending the final line by injecting his own commentary and adding an extra seven words (which can arguably be scanned as another line of pentameter and thus a seventeenth line) so that, as former VQR editor Ted Genoways has reported, the poem concluded:
Such as she was, such as she would become, has become, and I — and for this occasion let me change that to — what she will become.
Disappointingly, most of the occasion’s official written, audio, and video records edit out Frost’s improvisation (and thus also hide the limitations of print media that the wind and sun exposed), in the process removing from the historical record how orality contributed to — perhaps even saved — an otherwise highly scripted moment. As Kennedy argues in her introduction to Poems to Learn by Heart, “If we learn poems by heart, we will always have their wisdom to draw on, and we gain understanding that no one” — not even the weather — “can take away.”
Whatever we want to make of these changes to “The Gift Outright” (I made some suggestions on my Poetry & Popular Culture blog during the week before Elizabeth Alexander delivered her inaugural poem in 2009), Frost’s ability to instantaneously code-switch, as it were, between the values of oral and print economies makes this moment particularly compelling for me, and I think that ability helps to explain some of Frost’s persistent popularity among audiences like Johnny and Ponyboy who are used to moving back and forth between oral and print value economies. At the same time, Frost’s purchase with popular audiences and his affiliation — and his poetry’s affiliation — with the characteristics and values associated with orality also helps to explain his respectful but rather tepid critical standing among scholars, who have a deep investment in print; the body of Frost criticism pales in quantity next to that of fellow modernists like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein, none of whom associate with values linked to poetry memorization and recitation. There is, I think, some lesson in this: audiences who aren’t part of the po-biz and who don’t typically read the little magazines do care about poetry, and one sign of that care today — in part for how it gestures to the values of orality and thus the real, existential present and not, as Ong writes, “a context simply of words” — is memorization. Why should the loud, enthusiastic, appreciative audiences of poetry slams and Def Poetry expect anything less than for poets to show they care enough about their own work (and their audiences) to learn what they write by heart?
In 1963, nearly two years to the day after he recited “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inauguration, Frost would die of complications resulting from prostate surgery. Two years after that, in the fictional 1965 of The Outsiders, Johnny would also die, from injuries he sustained while saving a group of schoolchildren from a burning church. And although few could have foreseen it when the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) network was formed in 1966, the media landscape was beginning an age of transition as well; the first ARPANET connection was formed between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute in 1969, not only bringing to an end the decade that saw the decline of the memorized poem as a standard practice in American schoolrooms, but also forming the cornerstone of what would become the Internet and thus beginning an era that would see profound challenges to the authority and status of print.
Nothing gold can stay, it would appear, except, perhaps, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” itself. If Robson’s accounts are any indication, it’s likely that Ponyboy would remember the poem or parts of the poem for the rest of his life. Johnny would cite it before his death in a letter he left for Ponyboy between the pages of Gone with the Wind. (“In that poem, that guy that wrote it,” Johnny writes, “he meant you’re gold when you’re a kid. Like green. When you’re a kid, everything’s new. Dawn. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony, that’s gold. Keep it that way — it’s a good way to be.”) It would be recirculated in various types of books (though not in Kennedy’s Poems to Learn by Heart) and audio recordings and no doubt memorized by people who may have initially encountered it in Hinton’s novel or Coppola’s film. It would be interpreted by a range of YouTube videos, incorporated in or quoted (not unlike Wolfe’s “No useless coffin”) on social networking sites, illustrated on digital posters, and tattooed in part or whole on people’s bodies. Today, a Google search for “Nothing Gold Can Stay” produces about 458,000 results. Even though the age that Heart Beats restores to view has passed, and even though the print world underwriting that age has changed drastically, there’s no reason to fear for the disappearance of poetry. On the contrary, in an era when oral, print, digital, and a host of other non-print media are converging in so many ways, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” — like so many other poems — is experiencing a larger circulation than ever. How those poems are functioning in the lives of readers and listeners we can only begin to guess.
Poet Mike Chasar earned a BA in English from Valparaiso University, an MA in English (creative writing) from Miami University in Ohio, and a PhD in English and a certificate in book studies from the University of Iowa. His collections of poetry include the fine-art letterpress chapbooks The Dialpainter Sonnets...