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Reciting From Memory Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

28 August 2017

We read with no little difficulty (as we were constantly nodding our head in agreement) Molly Worthen's piece in Sunday's New York Times Memorize That Poem!. It brought us back to freshman English in high school, a far cry from the stuff we did in English in grammar school.

We were obliged to show our stuff by memorizing Robert Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee, a gruesome poem that begins:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;

We kids couldn't help but substitute "toil" for "moil," if memory serves. Moil refers to a strenuous activity that involves difficulty and effort and usually affords no pleasure. Unlike toil, which refers to, uh, a strenuous activity that involves difficulty and effort and usually affords no pleasure.

Dante. At the Mechanics' Institute.

You get the idea. No pleasure.

Which is the general consensus regarding memorizing poems. It's all moil and no fun. Leading more than a few of us into photography where there is no danger of memorization. You hardly even have to remember anything.

And yet the moil of memorizing a favorite poem (sorry, Robert, but McGee is not it) does indeed, as Worthen points out, provide pleasure. It can be a sort of national anthem you sing to yourself without disturbing others nearby.

We have, over the years, committed more than a few stanzas to memory.

Among our favorites is one you've never heard. We can't help but repeat it here as an illustration of the pleasure memorization provides. Repo Man was written not very long ago by Richard William Pearce.

Repo, Repo,
He stole my jeepo;
He takes the things
I try to keepo.

There, you should have that one memorized by now. And every time you use Apple Pay, you can recite it as a reminder to balance your budget.

For even longer (if not as long ago as freshman English), we've cherished a few lines in Old Occitan attributed to the poet Arnaut Daniel by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy (which, this proves, is not written entirely in Italian) as the poet visits Purgatory:

Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
consiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan.

I am Arnaut, who weeps and goes on singing;
Sadly I see the foolishness of my past
and see with joy what I hope for one day.

There is not a day, we have found, which does not start better without reciting those three lines (but they are particularly appropriate on Mondays).

Typically we more regularly recite, if you can call it that, Robin Williams' memorable sign-on, "Good morning, Vietnam!" as we stumble down the stairs each morning into the bunker. Talk about a national anthem.

Dante can also be counted on for three lines worth committing to memory for those occasions when a mean tweet seems irresistable:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

Remember what you are made of:
You weren't made to behave like beasts
but to be influenced by virtue and truth.

Dante hears those lines in hell, spoken by Ulysses. The adventurer was, he tells the poet, trying to exhort his men to go beyond the edge of the world into the unknown. To dare to know it.

Talk about moil.

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