Friday, March 18, 2011

Attempts' Accidental Poetry Month Continues: Hollander's Anthology of Good Poetry to Memorize

Anyone who's been coming by Attempts regularly may have noticed that I've been putting up a lot of poetry this month -- seven entries under the Poems (Entire) tag so far in March (not to mention three last February too). There is, as usual, no particular reason for this -- I happened to come across a bunch of poems I liked and wanted to share, so I put 'em up.

Now, in most cases there was an occasion of sorts: I put up a poem by Wendy Cope in connection with a related poem my students were reading for my class, and a poem by Seamus Heaney for St. Patrick's Day; the multiple translation of Li Bai's poem was occasioned by my finding and recommending a new poetry site*; and the poems by Robert Frost and George Eliot both related to quotations that I have long loved. The poem by Richard Wilbur I... discovered and liked. Okay, no occasion there. But even if there were motivations in most cases, the coincidence of this being such a poetry-heavy month here has been just that, a coincidence. So far as I know.

However, I've decided to go with it, and declare March to be Accidental Poetry Month™ here at Attempts, and put up a bunch more poems and poetry-related program activities, because... I found a bunch more I wanted to post, so why not?

Today we have not an individual poem, but a poetry anthology, online in its entirety. I'll let the editor of the relevant site take it away from here:
In 1995, the Academy [of American Poets] commissioned poet John Hollander to assemble a poetry anthology that emphasized the pleasure of memorization and recitation. The result was Committed to Memory...
...which is online at the site of the Academy of American Poets: the link goes to his introduction, which is followed by the list of 100 poems with links to each.

It's a fun list, I think. I like memorizing poetry, and looking over the list there are ten poems on it I've memorized in their entirety, and another dozen or more that I have significant chunks of. (I often, irritatingly, will find I know most of a poem but be unable to get a few lines straight.) Even if you're not particularly interested in memorizing poetry per se, it's a good little anthology of poems, largely fairly short (for the obvious reason), the longest one being Tennyson's Ulysses, (which is a favorite of mine and one of those that I've got about half memorized), clocking in at 73 lines. The rest are shorter, mostly considerably so -- a lot of sonnets, for the obvious reason.

Editor Hollander does say something about about some poems being too short as well as too long -- a sentiment that makes no sense to me: if he means too short to memorize, it's just bizarre; if he means (as I assume he does) poems to short to memorize and really count, then I at least understand the sentiment, but I think it's pretty silly. The advantage of him so doing, however, is that he quotes, in its entirety, an example of a too-short-to-memorize poem, a marvelous little couplet by John Donne that I'd never read before. (Thus, of course, giving it as a poem to memorize -- and upping his total to the Scheherazadianly pleasing 101 from the overly-round 100.**)

The poem is an epitaph (Hollander's word) for Hero and Leander; for those who don't know the story, here is how Wikipedia tells it***:
Hero and Leander is a Byzantine myth, relating the story of Hērō, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Dardanelles, and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way. Succumbing to Leander's soft words, and to his argument that Aphrodite, as goddess of love, would scorn the worship of a virgin, Hero allowed him to make love to her. This routine lasted through the warm summer. But one stormy winter night, the waves tossed Leander in the sea and the breezes blew out Hero's light, and Leander lost his way, and was drowned. Hero threw herself from the tower in grief and died as well.
Wikipedia also notes that the myth is the subject of two far more famous (and much longer) poems, by Christopher Marlowe (which contains the famous line "Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?"****) and a later one by Leigh Hunt (which so far as I know contains no particularly famous lines).

At any rate, with that as background, here is Donne's complete poem:
Hero and Leander.

Both robb'd of air, we both lie in one ground ;
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drown'd.
Not a bad little poem, as even Hollander recognizes; in fact, he gives a little half-sentence reading of it, which hits the high points, noting "its invocation of the four elements and its interplay of 'both' and 'one'".

Good grief, why not memorize it? I mean, it's short...

But if you want some longer poems to memorize -- or just read -- check out Hollander's anthology. And check back here in a day or two, as Attemps' Accidental Poetry Month™ continues!!

* New to me, anyway.

** A deliberate irony on his part? Or unnoticed? I have no idea.

*** At least as of this writing, who knows how it'll be edited tomorrow...

**** Is that a rhetorical question? Because if not, I can think of a few examples.

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