You must remember this, as lines go by

October 26, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- At Yale in the poisonous academic year of 1969, a young man with poetic aspirations presented his summer's scribblings to Robert Penn Warren, the literary giant in residence there. He received an immediate but mystifying response.

"Boy, these poems don't scan," Warren observed.

The young man, Timothy Murphy, didn't know what he was talking about. So Red Warren, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for fiction as well as one of the few great American poets of the last half-century, went to the blackboard. There he wrote, from memory, a sonnet by John Donne, and explained its scansion -- the metrical blueprint the poet had chosen.

Mr. Murphy was awed. He hadn't realized that most successful poems, like most successful airplanes, are constructed in accordance with certain basic principles. And while it may be possible to make a poem (or a plane) without understanding meter (or physics), the odds are heavily against either one flying.

Warren is dead now, and the subject of a recent biography by Joseph Blotner. Poetry which scans, like poetry which rhymes, has been missing for years and until very recently was widely presumed to be dead too, replaced by the sort of free verse Robert Frost compared to playing tennis without a net.

As for Timothy Murphy, he's alive and living in North Dakota, where he writes poems, which scan. He has a book of his poetry coming out next year. He recalls his association with Warren in an essay written for the current issue of the magazine Chronicles, and his recollections are both poignant and timely.

Two truths

Warren understood two truths about poetry which are applicable to other aspects of life as well. First, wishing won't get you there. Not everyone can write worthwhile poetry, anymore than everyone can throw out a runner from deep in the hole, sing at the Met, or transplant a kidney. Second, if the native ability happens to be there, it still takes years of work to bring it to life.

That day at Yale, the old poet told the young one that to succeed, "you'll need to be immersed in verse, and the only way is memorization." Memorize the first 109 lines of "Paradise Lost," he directed, and come back next week to show me some new poems of your own.

The current issues of both Time and Newsweek have cover stories concerned with education, which in the United States is generally presumed to be in a bad way. Neither story touches on the pedagogical principle underlying Warren's advice to Murphy. Which is that if you want your mind to produce wonderful things, you have to cram it with a lot of other wonderful things first.

Memorization -- "learning by rote," as progressive so-called educators call it dismissively -- is out of fashion in the schools, but that doesn't mean it isn't still going on. Young minds are astonishingly retentive, and hungry for information. If they're not fed material at school to memorize, they'll find something else and memorize that. In some cases it might even be poetry.

For those whose imaginations are fired by the magic of words, memorization is also prudent, like the squirrels putting away nuts for the winter. In years to come, when all the books may have been burned or banned, or when the eyes may have grown cloudy, the wonderful words will still be there, burned into the cerebral circuits.

At college, Robert Penn Warren is said to have memorized 3,000 lines of verse for an assignment calling for 800. Probably every line scanned, and as poets have understood for hundreds of years, that would have made the process much easier. 'Meter and rhyme are powerful mnemonic devices,' Warren told Mr. Murphy, who eventually memorized 30,000 lines for his mentor.

Warren also steered his pupil away from the academy, refusing to recommend him for a poet-in-residence post. If he could live his own life over again, he said, he'd never be an academic. He urged Mr. Murphy to go home to North Dakota, "buy a farm, sink your toes into that rich soil, and grow some roots." It was advice the young man took and never regretted.

Adversity needed

It can be argued that poets need adversity more than they need government grants and academic sinecures, both of which are in unprecedented abundance today. For most of the poetry published in the United States over the past half-century suggests that the more the state embraces its poets, the worse what they produce becomes.

Well, what is good poetry, anyway? Robert Penn Warren had an appropriately out-of-fashion definition. A poem, he said, should "grab you by the throat and say Poetry the way Jack Daniels grabs your throat and says Whiskey." I think I'm going to memorize that.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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