Thursday, February 24, 2011

In Praise of Memorization

I’ve been thinking lately about Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It fits the current Fredericton landscape perfectly: the snow lies two feet thick on the ground and I have to strap on snowshoes just to feed the backyard birds. But I think about this poem for another reason too: it’s an old friend, the first poem I fully memorized.

I did memorize another poem once. I chose Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler” as my challenge for a long-ago creative writing class taken at the Berkeley community college. Our teacher, poet Kim Addonizio, impressed on us the usefulness of this exercise, stressing the unique relationship we’d have with our memorized poem, its language soon to be embodied in ourselves. I duly memorized and recited and felt somehow improved, enlightened, as if I had rediscovered my underused powers of memory and were readying myself for the inhalation of numerous other examples of poetry great and small.

But Ondaatje’s poem didn’t stick, becoming instead a fond memory of something I once did, peripherally evocative as a distinctive colour or scent. I see the florescent-lit classroom hidden in one of the university buildings, I smell the distinctive waft of night-jasmine that hovered in the air as I left the class. But have I completely lost this poem? Strangely, as I read “The Cinnamon Peeler” to myself today, I hear the echo of my own voice in my head, as if the words existed simultaneously inside and outside my body.

In contrast, Frost’s poem has successfully established itself in my memory. Lines and passages have stayed with me since the age of eight. These apparent powers of retention amaze me, and I wonder, would I have had better long-term powers of memory if memorization had remained an ingrained part of the school curriculum? Would I now be able to stun my friends with my perfect recall of Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, and Dickinson, be able to provide a quote for any occasion?

Although the allure of performance provides one motive for internalizing poetry, it is the different relationship to language acquired through memorization that seems most desirable. I am fixated on the written word, yet many of the resonances and rhythms of poetic language can only be accessed through the voice. My most striking experience of a poet attuned to the power of orality came when I witnessed Galway Kinnell’s recitation (not reading) in San Francisco in the mid-90s. Unhitched from the page, his words seemed to spill up from the depths of his body, as if he were a vessel, an orator, an old-fashioned bard.

This may move a little too far into the territory of the mystical. Still, Kinnell’s performance exemplified the reason for memorization: leaving nothing between our selves and the words, taking poems literally “to heart.” Traditional as this practice is, Kim Addonizio was right. We should memorize poems, if not once a day, then once a year at least. Let’s designate that longed-for late-winter holiday as Poetry Memorization Day in New Brunswick: a day to refresh ourselves with words by taking a poem to heart.

Madeline Bassnett
Fiddlehead Poetry Editor

Monday, February 14, 2011


My life is all about revision--and that’s not just a metaphorical statement. It seems I’ve ceased writing anything new: my only task is to complete and repair the old. As if I’ve suddenly entered the field of furniture restoration, sanding the scratches, oiling the bumps, replacing worn nails--a deceptively satisfying comparison. As if revision were simply a matter of priming and primping, of returning to some earlier and idealised state.

The truth is much different. I don’t know about you, but for me revision is often a painful process involving hours of helpless despair, agitated distraction and false starts. I used to play endless games of spider solitaire, reaching for the fake reward of stacked and tidied cards, pitifully urged on by the celebratory fireworks indicating a win. My computer thankfully no longer offers me games and I’ve so far managed to resist the impetus to download a solitaire app, but my solitary procrastination did have its positive effect. Boredom and self-disgust eventually forced me back to the writing even when the way forward seemed too treacherous for words.

My current method of self-discipline consists of splitting myself into editing and writing halves, pretending non-acquaintance with myself, abandoning all attempts at preferential treatment. I write myself notes explaining the purpose of this or that metaphor, elaborating bumpy allusions, interrogating unwitting assumptions. I tell myself that these clumsy words will lead me towards the good ones, as if these were sitting quietly in a corner, just waiting to be found by me.

When the inner dialogue gets too strained I abandon it all, take to my skis, decide suddenly that the piano must be practiced. Movement is part of creativity, I tell myself, and doesn’t piano playing do wonders to link the left and right brain? Like every manoeuvre, these too have their uses, helping me to shuffle off the paralysing stress of immobility, moving me towards those days when words do come, and some of them are good.

The upshot of all this revision is that I have scarcely a brain cell to dedicate to the service of novelty. I fear the day when that final piece is polished, sent out to fend for itself. What will I do then? How will the new emerge from my shelves of bolts and sandpaper, my workshop brain longing for something more to fix?

Madeline Bassnett
Fiddlehead Poetry Editor

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Richard Cumyn's "The Young in their Country and Other Stories"

Richard Cumyn’s most recent fiction collection, The Young in their Country and Other Stories, contains two stories that were first published in The Fiddlehead: “In the Wash” (no. 232 summer 2007) and “The Goddess Throws Down” (no. 240 summer 2009)

Join Richard when he reads from The Young in their Country and Other Stories at the UNB Reading Series on Thursday Feb. 10, at 8pm in the Alumni Memorial Lounge

Steven Heighton notes that Richard Cumyn is: "one of our finest story writers: exacting, surprising, deftly attuned both to language and to character, tough-minded and large-hearted at the same time — often within the same sentence."