Saturday, 23 April 2011

Knowing poems by heart

I could, if more organised, have made a collection of testimony about the value people have found in knowing a stack of poetry by heart. I remember George Steiner somewhere talking about running an underground seminar over several years in, perhaps, Czechoslovakia. From time to time a student would stop appearing, only to turn up again months later explaining they’d been in prison where, lacking pen and paper, they’d occupied themselves in translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin from Russian to English, a poem over 200 pages long in the translation I looked at.

When our friends in other classes were told that their French master, Twelves, had told them how as a student he used to pace Sheffield Station reciting French verse in his head, I'm afraid we put that down along with his general demeanour to absurd Victorian stuffiness and lack of a real life.

I did, myself, though, use to know enough chunks by heart to keep myself happy for a while, though they weren’t very long -- 20-30 lines max, like the opening of the Canterbury Tales and, more arcanely, Dryden’s ‘Absolom and Achitophel’ which I thought hilarious, which in fact it is -- which makes me less dismissive that some that pupils might gain by reading Dryden. And speeches from Othello, as a result of starring in the school play (as Third Gentleman, around whom, as I explained in a long-lost article in a school magazine, the whole plot really turned).

I'm still taking Philosophie Magazine, because I think it’s good for me though I don’t get round to reading much of it. In the monthly feature, ‘Les Philosophes: L’Entretien’ the March issue has an interview with Stéphane Hessel, who I’d never heard of. Though trained in philosophy and involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, he is also a poet. Arrested in the Resistance he spent time in the camps:

The experience of Buchenwald, Rottleberode and Dora...showed me that knowing long poems by heart is an immeasurable resource. It’s as if you have opium on you, a substance that makes an arduous situation bearable. At Buchenwald I’d recite Paul Valéry’s Cimetière Marin Rilke’s Orphée and Villon’s La Ballade du Pendu to myself. Poetry is one of my vertical columns. It was like a medicine, it enabled me to hold on in the camps. It was more of a medicine for my soul than philosophy.

Not sure of my translation of some bits of that.

It seems to me that the fact that poetry can work like this is important and is insufficiently taken account of, let alone explained.

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