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Poems by Heart

Robert W. Service in 1905 ( Library and Archives Canada / Wikimedia)

“Dictators are needy people,” begins my Impromptus column today. Yes. “They are constantly demanding adulation.” I go on to speak of the dictator of Turkmenistan, whose name is a mouthful. He is Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. (The first name has ten letters — same as “Nordlinger,” by the way — and the last has sixteen, which beats me by some.)

In my next item, I talk about language — not very nice language, such as “garbage human being,” “human scum,” and “human rodent.” Lot of that goin’ around, in our social media and elsewhere.

Today’s column has a number of personalities, including Jordan Spieth, Ernest Hemingway, Wesley Snipes, and Prince Philip. Also Marshall Sahlins, the anthropologist who died this month at 90. He and I once had an exchange, which ended cordially, sort of.

Here in the Corner, I would like to talk poetry — particularly, the memorization of. First, I need to paste a swatch of Impromptus:

The pen of an angel was owned by Giacomo Leopardi, the poet who lived from 1798 to 1837. His full name was — settle in — Count Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi. Among his poems is “L’infinito.” For many, many years — generations — it has been the most memorized poem in all Italy. What is our equivalent? “The Tyger” (Blake)? “Invictus” (Henley)? “If—” (Kipling)? Do we in the English-speaking world still memorize poems? (I don’t.) (Never did.) (Wish I did.)

These thoughts were occasioned by a new translation of “L’infinito” by Beverley Bie Brahic, published in the current New Criterion.

Time was, boys and men memorized poems by Robert W. Service. Did girls and women? I don’t think so, but I could be wrong. Ronald Reagan committed Service poems to memory. While he was president, he memorably unleashed a little of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” This was at an event with the education secretary, Bill Bennett.

This morning, I have found a piece by Andrew Ferguson, published in The Weekly Standard in December 1999. “In his autobiography,” writes Andy, “Ronald Reagan recalls discovering a book of Service poems during his boyhood.” Andy then quotes from the autobiography:

I reread “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” so many times that years later, on the occasional nights when I had trouble falling asleep, I’d remember every word and recite it silently to myself until I bore myself into slumber. If I still couldn’t sleep, I’d switch to “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and that usually did it.

Once, Pierre Trudeau challenged Reagan to recite “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” They were at a state dinner — Buckingham Palace — where Reagan sat between the Queen Mother and Trudeau. Reagan accepted the challenge and recited the poem, all 112 lines. Andy Ferguson writes of this — entertainingly — in his piece.

He also writes of John McCain, who was campaigning across New Hampshire. Aboard the candidate’s bus was a crew from Comedy Central. They asked him, “Who’s your favorite poet?” McCain answered, “Robert Service, I guess.” The crew then challenged him to recite some — which he did: “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (115 lines).

“The wise-asses from Comedy Central were apparently impressed with McCain’s performance,” writes Andy.

As they were breaking down their camera equipment, McCain mentioned offhandedly how he had come to memorize “Sam McGee.”

“The guy in the cell next to me,” he said, “it was his favorite poem. He used to tap it to me on the wall, in Morse Code. That’s how I memorized it.”

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