In this post I described the Brodsky symposium I attended earlier this month, and in a comment I particularly praised the contribution by Mikhail Gronas, an assistant professor in the Department of Russian Language and Literature at Dartmouth. Well, it turns out he’s a reader of LH, and he wrote me that for quite a while he had been meaning to send me a link to his article “Why Did Free Verse Catch on in the West, but not in Russia?” (pdf) in connection with this post. I’ve spent the last couple of days mostly reading the article instead of working, and I’m here to tell you that if you have any interest in either the titular question or the memorization of poetry (particularly in Russia), you should read it yourself. I’m going to provide some extended quotes from it below the cut, but first I’ll quote a comment from dale in the thread for that LH post that hits on Gronas’s main point:
If you’ve ever attempted to memorize long passages of genuinely free verse (with no regular metric rules, no syllable-counting, no rhyme schemes & no alliterative schemes to help bump your memory back on track) I think you’ll agree that memorization of poetry will tend to vary inversely (in a manner of speaking) with free verse.
Have Russians, I wonder, kept up the habit of memorization more than most of us have? When I have had American high school students memorize verse, it’s usually the first time they’ve ever been asked to do such a thing.
The answer to dale’s question is yes, yes they have, and Gronas goes into great detail about it. (I was also tickled to see that he cites an op-ed piece by Carol Muske-Dukes on the value of memorizing poetry that was the basis for this post from the early days of Languagehat.) And now to the quotes, which I hope will intrigue you enough to want to read more. First, a couple of passages that involve the central thesis:
When free verse started its triumphal progress through Europe, the leading Russian modernists did not lag far behind: Briusov, Blok, Kuzmin, and Khlebnikov tried their hand at it more or less simultaneously with comparable attempts in the West. Some of these attempts were undoubtedly successful. Thus, Mikhail Kuzmin’s free verse cycle Alexandrian Songs (1906) and Velemir Khlebnikov’s poem Zoo (1909) were among the most influential poetic texts of the period. The poems of Walt Whitman, frequently cited as one of the sources for French and European free verse, were translated and popularized in Russia by the most energetic, prolific, and widely read literary critic of the period, Korney Chukovsky — the best advocate Russian verslibrists could have hoped for. Thus, based on the close parallelism between Russian and European poetic histories and judging by the early successes of Russian free verse, one might well have expected that it would become the predominant mode of poetic diction in Russia, as it did in Europe and America.
* * *
Whereas the mnemonic use of poetry has been in continuous decline in the West, it was artificially propped up and sustained by the specific needs of both the totalitarian Soviet state itself and its population. Put simply, meters and rhymes and stanzas are mnemonic aids: when a society stops learning poetry by heart, phonic constraints are no longer needed, and that’s what happened in the West. In Soviet Russia, both the rulers and the ruled had reasons to continue memorizing, thus throwing a lifeline to rhymes and meters. I have intentionally formulated this idea to make it sound reductionist: and in fact I believe that the determining factors of cultural phenomena lie outside the culture itself, in the domain of the social uses of culture. In what follows I will try to flesh out and contextualize the causal connection between the mnemonic use of poetry and poetic form itself, and to sketch out some episodes in the history of poetry memorization in the West and in Russia.
But there is much more than a historical argument here. Gronas has an eye for a good story, as evidenced by this anecdote from footnote 7:
The importance of exact (verbatim) reproduction in the new mnemonic context, as opposed to the oral production that preceded it, may be illustrated by a novella about Dante included in Il Trecentonovelle, a collection of stories by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Franco Saccheti. In this (probably legendary) story, Dante encounters a smith who, while hammering on his anvil, sings to himself a poem of Dante’s as if he were performing a piece of folklore, “jumbling his [Dante’s] verses together, clipping them and adding to them.” The furious Dante, insulted by the lack of respect towards his text, rushes to the smith and throws his various tools into the street and then explains his behavior to the amazed victim of his fury: “‘You sing my book, but not as I have made it. I also have a trade, and you are spoiling it for me.’” Significantly, in the context of the present discussion, the story ends with the castigated smith taking up the singing of safer poems: “when he wished again to sing, he sang of Tristan and of Launcelot, but lef Dante alone” (quoted in Whitcomb 1903, 30). Tristan and Lancelot refer of course to popular romances with unstable texts, transmited through more traditional — and less stringent — oral channels.
And I find this passage quite moving:
Similarly, in the nonofficial culture, and especially under condition of forced mistrust and suspicion in the labor camps, knowing the same poems by heart could signal a cultural — and therefore social and psychological — affinity. Such a mnemonic recognition is described in Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoirs where she tells about meeting her son (future writer Vasily Aksyonov), from whom she had been separated since her arrest when he was a young child.
I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that very first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us. And I was so glad to be able to offer him an abundance of those things that he looked to me to supply.
“Now I understand what a mother is….you can recite your favorite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left off.”
(Ginzburg 1981, 266—67)
What is described here is akin to Aristotelian anagnorisis — the recognition of long-lost relatives by secret signs.
One aspect of his argument is nicely summed up by the quote “the readers expect memorable poems, the poets expect (or hope) to be learned by heart.” And the article starts off with an epigraph by the wonderfully named Revolt Pimenov (1931-1990), a courageous mathematician and dissident who spent seven years in the Gulag, saying that he wants his writing “to be learned by heart, rather than read”; if you’re just going to be a leisured reader, “You might as well go and watch TV.”