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Imperfect Recall

My own acquaintance and relationship with poetry is bound up with acquisition, memorization, and recital. That is: I realized when I was quite young that I could learn poems "by heart," as the saying goes. This may have something to do with early experience in compulsory religious and scriptural studies. It was no hardship for me to commit hymns and verses of the Bible (though not so many psalms, oddly enough) to memory. Furthermore, I found that this fairly simple attainment could, as well as give me satisfaction, win me praise. This helped make up for my almost dyslexic inability to read music, or to play a note on any instrument. And, when it came to poetry, I would squirm at the embarrassed clumsiness with which my classmates "read" beautiful lines that they obviously felt were effeminate by definition.

Not that there was anything effeminate about the sort of verse upon which I cut my teeth. Originating from a naval family, and brought up in all-boys boarding schools, I was full of Henry Newbolt and Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Even cornier heroic and patriotic poems and songs have a hold on me to this day. (The hymns and Bible verses have lost their grip, without being forgotten.) This helped rather than hindered my later exposure to W. H. Auden and Wilfred Owen, the latter of whose poems had the effect of a swift uppercut to my chin. It wasn't easy to "learn" all ninety-nine lines of "1 September 1939," though I can still get through it if I have a prompter, but Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est" is one of the poems I take with me everywhere and don't need to look up. By a useful coincidence, Cecil Day-Lewis was an "old boy" of the prep school at which my father worked after he left the Royal Navy, and the first time I ever had a book signed was by this quasi-mythical figure of "The Thirties." He had come, as he did every year, to judge the school's "poetry saying" competition. I thought then, and think now, that there was value in that name for it.

At any rate, I suppose that Homer would have approved. And probably Shakespeare, too. I cannot claim much authority for myself, but I think that there is something of the gold standard about the echo and recall of poetry in the conscious mind. For example, I could now argue from various positions that Ezra Pound was a lousy poet as well as a depraved pseudo-intellectual (especially after reading the muscular treatment accorded him, for his classical solecisms alone, by Robert Conquest). But I "knew" this as soon as I opened Pound's books, and saw the sinister gibberish on the page. I am forced to concede that he must have "had" something as an editor, since I cannot imagine life without some of Eliot's Choruses or Yeats's "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death," and since both men acknowledged his help and advice. Poetry, to put it another way, is also a good training in the ironic.

Book-signings and encounters to one side (I heard Auden read "On the Circuit" in Great St. Mary's Church in Cambridge in its year of publication), the first true poet I ever met was James Fenton, who was my contemporary at Oxford. He had won early fame and a prize for a sonnet sequence, but he was forever composing bits of blues, along with parodies and what he sometimes called "rude songs." This proved to be equally true, as I got older and got to know them, of Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis. A preferred form was the limerick, of which I still have a hundred or so hard-wired into my cortex in case of need (or opportunity). Not all these need be filthy—I have a special reserve of clean ones, some without even a double entendre—but all of them do need to follow a certain simple but exacting scheme. It depresses me beyond measure that most people I meet cannot even recite, much less compose, this gem-like form. Nor can any student in any of my English classes produce a single sonnet of Shakespeare: not even to get themselves laid (the original purpose of the project).

I worry that by phrasing things in this way I may myself be adding to the general coarsening and deafness. Of course my test isn't the one true test: who can safely say that they have memorized Don Juan, for instance? But then who could you count as reliable who could not manage a stave or two of The Waste Land? The word "Koran" means "the recitation," and it seems that in Arabic its incantation can induce trance by sheer power and beauty. (Auden was wrong, in his valediction for Yeats, to say that "poetry makes nothing happen.") At least this restores the idea of a relationship to the theoretically divine, and to the audience. (Auden also wrote of Yeats that "mad Ireland hurt you into poetry," which at any rate implies the possibility of a reciprocal relationship between poetry and the reality of which Eliot believed that "human kind" could not bear too much.)

Yet very often, late at night, when I am not tired enough for sleep but too tired to carry on with absorbing or apprehending anything "serious" or new, I will walk over to the appropriate shelf and pull out the tried and the true: the ones that never fail me. And then I will always stay up even later than I had intended. And sometimes, in the morning, I really can "do" the whole of "Spain 1937" or "The Road to Mandalay," and can appreciate that writing is not just done by hand.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Journalist and columnist Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949 and became an American citizen in 2007. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy, and economics. A well-known commentator for radio and television, Hitchens also wrote and reported widely, covering topics both global and domestic....

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Imperfect Recall

  • Journalist and columnist Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949 and became an American citizen in 2007. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy, and economics. A well-known commentator for radio and television, Hitchens also wrote and reported widely, covering topics both global and domestic....

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