Geoff Nunberg is the LH house linguist not just because of his scholarship but because he’s able to put it at the service of a wider view of language and the world. His latest Fresh Air commentary is about learning poetry by heart, which he agrees with me in thinking a useful practise that should be revived (as Poetry is trying to do). He ends with the following passionate peroration:
If you think you can understand poems without feeling them in your body, you’re apt to treat them as no more than pretty op-ed pieces—you wind up teaching kids to value “The Road Not Taken” as merely a piece of sage advice about making difficult decisions.
I was about seven or eight years old when I learned Burns’s “Scots wha’ hae’ wi’ Wallace bled” from my dad. I had absolutely no idea what the poem was about or even what half the words meant. But I learned something else—how verse can become a physical presence, in Robert Pinsky’s words, which “operates at the borderland of body and mind.”
That’s an experience that you can only live fully when the poem comes from within rather than from the page in front of you. I like the way the Victorianist Catherine Robson put this: “When we don’t learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes… of its own incessant beat.”
I was greatly amused, though, when he slipped one past whoever monitors Fresh Air for decency:
Unless you’re one of those freaks of nature who can soak this stuff up effortlessly, most of what you’ve got left of the poems you’ve learned is only snips and snatches—”My heart aches, and a something something pains my sense”; “I will arise and go now, and go to whatchamacallit”; “Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do.”
That last quote is the opening of perhaps the best-known English poem of the last few decades, Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse“; I can’t imagine that anybody who’s once heard or read the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” could possibly half-remember it as “Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad.”
Addendum 1. Dick & Garlick discusses the “Babu English” verb by-heart ‘learn by rote memorization.’
Addendum 2. Mark Liberman is “slightly surprised” at my reaction to Nunberg’s sly half-quote: “the FCC has no regulations against on-air quotations whose (unread) context includes forbidden words.” I’m sure that’s true, but I wasn’t talking about FCC regs so much as the general concern for suitability that prevails at NPR; I can’t imagine Frank Deford or Cokie Roberts alluding, even obliquely, to the word fuck.