J.T. Barbarese makes the trenchant claim in his essay “The Only Critic” that memory itself serves as the “only critic” of poetry by virtue of its acumen for retaining what W.H. Auden called “memorable speech.” “Memory is what we remember…not a storage facility,” he writes. “It is a hoarder, so it isn’t choosey or tidy.” One must, therefore, work at listening to the inaudible inner voice of such “memorable speech” as Voyages II by Hart Crane if she is to drown out the “mnemonic clutter” blaring through the wall of the next room.
THE ONLY CRITIC
How “great” a poet was Donne, Yeats, or Hart Crane? We take Shakespeare’s greatness for granted because we have no choice, so indebted is the language to his influence and cultural memory enslaved to the plays. But when I woke at midnight reciting the opening lines of Hart Crane’s Voyages II I began to wonder, six hours later over coffee and the “Voicer” page of the Daily News, what does this mean? Is the real question, “how great is his impact on the academy, where poets are stuffed and warehoused?” But it can’t mean only that, unless it also means that Crane has no extra-academic readers with no stake in his “importance.” Can that be so?
A poet’s only measure of importance is how the work is remembered in the work of another poet. An important poet survives in the lines or phrases you remember, the stanzas you recite from memory. As John Yeats told his son, “There is no critic like the memory.” But how dependable a jurist is memory in an age of earbuds and Audible downloads? We live, work, even sleep encoffined in sound.
We say we know something “by heart” for not so obvious reasons. I know by heart all of Voyages II. I also know “by heart” “There is a certain slant of light,” by my first crush, Emily Dickinson, Hardy’s “’In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations,’” Cullen’s “Anecdote,” and Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees.” In there is also Blake’s “The Sick Rose”— Blake is an addiction—elbow to elbow with way too much Wordsworth: Wordsworth is smallpox, you recover but are never entirely cured. What else? All of “Ozymandias,” the last stanza of “Ode to the West Wind,” Edmund’s speech from Lear I:ii, and Shelley’s wonderfully preposterous but beautiful definition of poetry in his Defense of Poetry. Shelley leaves not pits but craters in the memory—“Life like a dome of many-colored glass/ Stains the white radiance of Eternity / Till death tramples it to fragments.” Down there is also Auden’s “Lullaby” and “Compline,” Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” Clifton’s “Homage to my Hips” and the opening sentences of the last paragraph of “The Dead.” As well as –duh—lots of Shakespeare, who owns the deed to the property. “Night’s candles are burnt out and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops” never fails to bring my emotions dangerously close to the surface.
I was at a bar in Philadelphia in my late twenties with my best friend when he threw me the opening three lines of “Prufrock.” I continued where he left off and recited the rest of that stanza from memory. A eureka moment. I realized, good God, I know half of this thing, and I am more than half drunk. This was a reason for grand despair. I loathe the man, with his mortician’s sensibility, Christo-fascist politics and swinish nativism dolled up in a ministerial and totally faked accent. Wyndham Lewis used to joke that Eliot went around London “disguised as Westminster Abbey.” But then I recall that TSE was born, after all, Tom Eliot, in St. Louis, Missouri, and that as a kid he likely sounded more like Tom Sawyer than, say, Colin Craven. Yet there he was, that great fakir, the Old Possum, with “Prufrock” hanging out with “Ozymandias,” Abbot and Costello’s sublime “Who’s on First?” and Robert Preston’s masterpiece “You Got Trouble,” from The Music Man.
I can recite from memory Pound’s “The Garden,” a minor miracle, and once could do most of Canto 81 (“Tear down thy vanity, I say, tear down”), though I no longer can. After Persona the muse of fascism uglified his work, and Pound was lost to me, a long but eventually failed marriage. At dinner with friends a couple years ago and in what specific connection I can’t remember, somebody asked the table, “Has anyone ever written great political poetry?” I was about to say no when I heard Yeats invoked via the line, “’Who walked through the post office?’” “Not walked, stalked!” somebody else shouted, “No, not ‘who,’ but what.” And so it went. This ignited a relay to see who could recite a clearly better poem by Yeats, so I launched the opening of “Leda and the Swan,” from memory. I didn’t realize how much of it I owned without knowing it. What’s more—and what may be actually significant— the portions that I did not own were dead spots in the poem. (Try it.) This is either a pleasant surprise, like finding out that you are named in a stranger’s will, or an unpleasant one, like being bequeathed the second-best bed. You don’t own the poem. The poem owns you.
Why remember what we remember? The heart covets some longed-for piece, if it cannot have all, of what it desires. Not only what’s “in” the past but what is the past. Memory is what we remember, then, not a storage facility. It is a hoarder, so it isn’t choosey or tidy. So, in my “heart,” are also the opening lines of Joyce Kilmer’s inane “The Tree” (if that’s the title), all of the Tantum Ergo (a Gregorian chant we learned in second grade), the first stanza of the worst poem Whitman ever wrote, “O Captain My Captain,” which we were forced to memorize (also in second grade), and much more primary school nonsense, like
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May
—sung en chorale by the whole lower school to the middle school May Queen, Mary Pat Weinrich, the baker’s daughter who lived in the corner house at the end of my block. (The sign at the bottom of the bakery window read Open Sunday 8 to 1, bracketing the hours of low and high mass—which I also obviously remember.)
What else? Telephone numbers of many lost friends and dead relatives. Beer, bread, soap and perfume commercials by the sponsors of Band Stand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Ditties, some clever, from men’s room stalls. The opening lines of the theme from Crusader Rabbit and Rocky and Bullwinkle. Something Giulia Luccioli, daughter of an Italian diplomat, whispered in my ear in third grade after rushing across the dancefloor to claim me as her square dance partner—I hear it still, through the tinnitus: “Will you be my Dosey Do?” with an Italian accent. Then there is the movie dialogue. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! My name is Inigo Montoya—prepare to die. Morbius, the big machine, ten-thousand cubic miles of klystron relays, enough power for a whole population of creative geniuses. C’mon, Jake, it’s Chinatown. And cartoons. “Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit,” sung by Elmer Fudd to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries.
There are whole memory banks—all of my fellow burned-out bandsmen and -women, whose multi-decibel losses in the lower frequencies are casualties of stacked Marshall cabinets and Dead concerts, listen up—of the song lyrics only electroshock will remove, many inane (viz, Milly Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” “Hang on, Sloopy,” “Incense and Peppermints” ). There’s also the best of the Beatles’ catalogue, a good deal of Marvin Gaye (What’s Goin’ On) that other early crush, Sam Cooke, Elvis (from the Sun years) and the Bros Everly. Some survive only as memorable choruses—from Moby Grape’s “Hey Grandma,” Steely Dan’s “Katy Lied,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger—and snatches of 77 Sunset Strip and—full disclosure—The Monkees.
Mnemonic clutter, sonic litter, scraps from a life’s sound track.
I write this while still hearing Voyages II in my head and a detestable spokeswoman for a detestable politician on the radio from another apartment. She is freelancing vacuous answers to serious questions. Voyages II is canceling her out. That must mean something.