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Tennyson under Water

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in the 1870s (Julia Margaret Cameron / PD-US / Wikimedia)

I will get to poetry — and water — in a minute. That relates to reader mail. I have an Impromptus column today, here. It begins with the retirement of Raúl Castro. Strange to think of dictators retiring, isn’t it? But Fidel Castro did, more or less, and now Raúl is. How long will this dictatorship outlast the brother dictators? That dictatorship has been going since 1959. North Korea’s (three Kims) has been going since 1948. Syria’s (two Assads) has been going since 1970.

Some thought that Raúl Castro’s son, Alejandro, would take over the Cuban dictatorship. (Alejandro is a force — a nasty force, of course — in the interior ministry.) But, for now, the regime will be helmed by a non-family member, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Let me excerpt a quick paragraph from my column:

In his speech to Congress on Wednesday night, President Biden said, “The autocrats will not win the future.” Is that so? I hope so. Not sure.

Elsewhere in Impromptus, I touch on Donald Trump, Alexei Navalny, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Jack Nicklaus, Richard Strauss, et al.

Often, I note obituaries, or write them myself. It’s not that I like death, far from it — it’s that I like life stories. Indeed, love them. The older I get, the more I think that all we have is biography, and autobiography.

A reader wrote to say that he, too, likes obituaries, adding, “I have Irish roots.” I thought this was funny. He told me, “In my Irish-American family in the 1950s, the obits in the newspaper were called the ‘Irish sports pages.’”

Speaking of sports pages, Tchaikovsky is in them. The composer. Seriously. Check out a post of mine at The New Criterion, here. (The matter relates to Russia, doping sanctions, and the Olympic Games.)

In a column earlier this month, I had occasion to mention Leopardi — Giacomo Leopardi, the Italian poet (1798–1837) — and his most famous poem, “L’infinito.” For generation upon generation, this has been the most memorized poem in Italy. In my column, I said,

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.)

A hearty thanks to all readers who have written me on this subject (and others). A friend of mine who is a Columbia U grad cited Edward Mendelson, who has a lofty title at that university — just about the loftiest: Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities. Professor Mendelson says something along these lines: “If you can’t learn the poem by heart, then you’ll just have to memorize it.”

Is there a distinction between learning something by heart and memorizing it? In some higher, perhaps spiritual sense, yes, for sure.

Michael J. Lewis is an art historian at Williams College, well known to many readers of fine publications. He has sent me an eloquent letter, which I excerpt (with his permission, of course):

My college’s art department held an event where each professor was supposed to speak about his work for no more than five minutes, and almost all of them went way over their time limit. I complained to my wife, who pointed out that no one had ever shown them the mechanics of giving a talk of just 600 words, and treating it like a performance with a beginning and an end. Rather than grumble, maybe I should teach my students how to give a tight five-minute talk.

And so I did. I walked them through the various approaches to a slide talk; how to work backwards from a definitive ending; how to plan exactly what to point to in each image, so you don’t lose time flailing around; etc. The following week, each of the students gave a five-minute presentation on an important building, and they were triumphs of clarity and discipline.

One of the students, Jake, spoke without notes, and he was so articulate — in a casual, off-the-cuff way — that it shocked me. Later I was having a beer with him and another student in our local pub, and I expressed my astonished admiration at the quality of his talk. And then it hit me all at once — he had memorized his talk, verbatim. This astonished me even more, and I turned to the subject of poems: No one memorizes them anymore, as we used to!

Whereupon Jake, with a sly smile, launched into Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” I looked at his friend and said, “That’s remarkable. Jake can quote Tennyson.” And his friend, without skipping a beat, launched into the Odyssey: “Sing to me, o Muse,” etc. It was now mano a mano, and so I dragged out my musty “Gunga Din.”

Again, I expressed astonishment that my students had learned English poetry — or poetry in English — by heart. At which point Jake launched into Neruda’s “Pido silencio,” in Spanish. You can guess the rest — his friend launched into the Odyssey in Greek (he was a classics major). Pleased at my amazement, they laughed: “We’re on the swim team, professor. You have to have something running through your head when you’re underwater.”

This had a bracing effect. Never again would I play the cranky old codger — You youngsters don’t memorize poetry by the yards, as we did! — and be shamed by 20-year-olds who have more poetry in their heads than I do. Ever since then, I’ve been learning poems during my five-hour commute between Williamstown and Philadelphia (where my wife is a museum director).

Nice! I could give you a limerick or two . . .

Again, for today’s Impromptus, go here.

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