On the Road with Wallace and Wystan
I accepted a correction from Wallace Stevens with only a bit of quibbling. Apparently he hadn’t realized how evocative and olfactory the word “brewing” could be in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” where he had used “heaving” instead. In committing the poem to memory I had repeated scores of times:
It would have been deep air,
The brewing speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end.
When I finally looked at a text and saw “heaving” it was a bit wrenching, but I let Wallace have his way.
My emendation—or, if you insist, my mistake—came from having memorized “The Idea of Order” by glancing at its lines handwritten on the backs of business cards while cruising east on the Ohio Turnpike. Memorizing and reciting was a way I passed some hours of the bi-weekly commute in the company F-350, slouching toward Buffalo loaded with the steel construction paraphernalia that my ironworker colleagues call “ten pounds of shit in a five pound box.”
The truck and its boxes might look like a mess to strangers, but I’ve worked to keep some sense to it. The order of a tightly crafted poem has the same kind of appeal to me. The job site might be dirty, noisy, and cold, losing money and behind schedule, but I feel better knowing which box holds the three-quarter-inch drive sockets. Maybe Stevens speaks to a similar need when he writes about the senses overwhelmed by
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
Onhigh horizons, Mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea
and about humans wanting to find or manufacture order in untamable nature, like his narrator, who recalls the lights on tilting fishing boats as the stylus of a giant compass, maybe even a wand, “Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,/Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.” Well, my truck was not as wild as Stevens’s Caribbean scenes, nor is my crafty arrangement of gear equivalent to the transformative art of the poem’s heroine, who:
when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
Ironwork is often artful though, if not arty, and there are reasons that carrying longish poems in memory has some of the same satisfactions as completing a difficult weld or fitting a steel handrail to a curved stair. For one thing, when you haul out a poem from the brain’s back room, it feels like you own it. Each time you run through it you see different inflections you might use. Though the copyright owner might disagree, you share in his or her creative expression. On a long walk, for instance, you might try out seven different ways to enunciate Stevens’s image of the willful, senseless sea: “Like a body wholly body, fluttering/Its empty sleeves.”
This possessing of poems may have benefits, but probably not social ones. You might impress people at certain parties, but they’re likely just literary types, and trying to impress that bunch is what got me into this manual-labor mess. Or so I’ve heard myself say as I’ve pondered, while clinging to some icy, skinny beam with my fingers, how differently life might have turned out if I’d studied harder for my chemistry final instead of pulling an all-nighter on that Yeats paper. On the other hand, I dared once to start reciting W.H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” on a construction site, because the young guy dragging welding cables with me was mouthing one of Eminem’s clever raps. After a couple of lines, I saw Auden wasn’t matching my partner’s Red Bull rhythms, so I switched over to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The kid wasn’t listening to that ancient stuff either, but it didn’t matter, because the floor grinders started their machine and nobody could hear anything.
So I still haven’t impressed anyone beyond family, but reciting from memory has other benefits. A good solid poem in your cortex can be almost like ballast in a ship’s hold. If turbulent mental activity surges, speaking a poem to oneself can be a way to even out the waves. I first learned this through my practice of memorizing Psalms. But even nominally secular poems recited aloud soothe, and not merely by providing a distraction from disturbing matters, but by the steady rhythm of their sound, and their effects on the breath. Consider even these dark words from “The Shield of Achilles”:
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
In speaking the poem’s sixty-seven lines you restrain yourself from the familiar flurries of contemporary mediaspeak and follow phrasings that come from a deeper place.
But pleasure may be the main reason I keep memorizing poems. The intense familiarity of a work known by heart allows happy moments of sensing the poem as a whole and in details. This pleasure is not simply the kick of solving a puzzle, nor my ironworker affinity for structure. There is also pleasure in sounds and rhythms, even the mouth pleasure of “unintelligible multitude.” But at its best the experience of a good poem has to do with trying to apprehend a deeply known truth that another person could communicate only with a precise set of words. Probably I like both “The Shield of Achilles” and “The Idea of Order at Key West” because in each such a valuable perception underlies the art, making them not only good company on a long drive, but worth the effort to learn.
On the Road with Wallace and Wystan