Lately I’ve Been Thinking about Memorization

Lately, I’ve been thinking about memorization. There’s that Foer book that’s climbing the charts. There’s that cell phone I have to which I’ve outsourced the memorization of every phone number in my life save N’s and my parents’. And there’s the final oral exam I assign to most of my undergraduate creative writing classes, where I make them tell from memory a story 100 years old or older. They go to the Bible, Grimm, Greek myth. The idea being to force the essence of narrative into their brains. Sure, they forget these stories by the end of finals week, but it’s a gesture.

I know, from memory, a few things. Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (easy) and the obvious, shorter W.C. Williams poems. Certain passages of Prufrock. I know the 23rd Psalm, still, from Bible camp back in sixth grade (but I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer). I know this, mispelled:

Wan that April with his shoores soote,
the droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
and bathed ev’ry vein in switch liquor
of which vertu engendred is the flor.
Wan Zephyris eek with his sweete breeth,
inspired hath in ev’ry holt and heeth,
the tendre croppe and the yonnge sonne
hath in the Ram his half curs yronne.
And smalle fowles maken melodye
that sleepen all the nicht with open eeye.
So pricketh him nature in hir corages,
thenne longen folk to go on pilgrimmages.
And palmyres for to saken strounge strondes,
to ferne halways couth in sondre londes.
And specially from ev’ry shires ende
of Engleland to Counterb’ry they wende,
the holy blissful martyr for to seeke
that hem hath holpen wan that they were seeke.

I’m glad to know these things. To be able to own them like I own the alphabet (and the alphabet backward). Other than impressing people and, like, making a kind of performance regarding the “power of words”, I don’t know what good memorizing passages of literature does, but I’d like very much to be the sort of professor who can recite a lot of passages of literature from memory.

I’d like to get more prose stuck in there. My plan is to start with the opening, oh, aria let’s call it, of Cheever’s “The Death of Justina”.

So help me God, it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome -– up two steps and down three –- one entered the library, where all the books were in order, the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience…

Oh yeah, I know “Jabberwocky” but then again so does Tim Burton, probably, so where has it got me?


In other news, FOX has a new reality TV show where people are victimized surprised by flash mobs in order to get proposed to and who knows what else. It’s interesting to me how the flash mob has transmogrified over the last few years. What began as hipster meta-happening, replete with arty poses and obscure gestural goings-on, has become a moment for people to suddenly dance in sync. Has become a rehearsed performance. People, like, practice in private for this sudden moment.

I think what happened is that certain people read about 1.0 flash mobs in the Times and then YouTube happened and these same people watched folks do surprise choreography (sometimes just as a couple, sometimes with friends) at their weddings. Triangle-formation “Thriller” dances. That stupid thing they put in The Office. Why confound when you can dance, dance, dance?

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