Turning (Away from) the Page by Joe Mills

Years ago, I had a landlord, Lou, who worked as a night-time taxi driver. During the day, he wore golf shirts and slacks. For his shift, he would put on a leather vest, jeans, leather fingerless gloves, and a leather wide-brimmed hat. He would say, “It’s important to look like someone you shouldn’t mess with.” He was a big guy, well over 250 pounds, with a big black mustache, and, he did look imposing (except when he walked his wife’s toy poodles, Tinky Winky and Teeny Weeny, before heading out).

Lou knew the streets of the city, and he also knew hundreds of poems. Before he drove a cab, he was a long-haul truck driver, and he would spend the miles memorizing poetry. He particularly loved William Butler Yeats and Edgar Allan Poe. Once, having picked up two English professors at the airport, he overheard one of them misquote “The Raven.” He gave the correct line and explained he knew the whole poem. “I bet you a hundred bucks, you don’t,” the professor said. Lou took the bet, started reciting, and, at the end of the ride, the guy owed both the fare and a hundred dollars. But, Lou liked to point out, “He didn’t give me a tip.”

I’ve been thinking about Lou lately and the value of memorization. If I walk past a piano, I can sit and noodle a few phrases, but I can’t really play anything. Teaching myself by using books means I’ve been learning to read music and play what’s on the page in front of me, but I don’t know anything by heart. Recently, I’ve been wondering if I should.

Certain types of memorization seem pointless. I once knew a guy who could recite prepositions in alphabetical order, and while this was impressive after a few beers, it also seemed of dubious value. And, although it may be an apocryphal story, apparently someone once expressed surprise that Einstein didn’t know his own phone number. The scientist asked why he should bother memorizing information that he could look up.

I don’t even know my own work by heart. Once, during a radio interview, I was urged to recite a particular poem, and I couldn’t. The person became annoyed at what he considered a pose, and I explained that once I write a poem, it’s gone. It’s left my head. Writing is a way of clearing out voices.

And yet, at one time, inspired by Lou, I did memorize poems. I typed them out on index cards to learn while running, including Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” Gary Snyder’s, “I Went into the Maverick Bar,” Robert Penn Warren’s, “Treasure Hunt,” Robert Hayden’s, “Those Winter Sundays.” Many of these remain with me.

As I chose poems to run with, I realized I was developing a criteria about what I valued. They had to speak to me, and they had to be worth the effort. Similarly, at readings sometimes, the Irish poet Adrian Rice talks about this dynamic and memory as a poetic standard among his friends and colleagues:

“A guy we all knew about, Brian Keenan, was one of the famous Beirut hostages, being held for years along with an English journalist. He wrote an amazing book on the experience, An Evil Cradling. He and his hostage partner talked about surviving by telling each other stories, sharing deep memories, etc., and part of their experience was realizing just what poems, song lyrics, nursery rhymes they had by memory. Such stuff actually really helped. SO, when we would meet in a bar in Belfast, and someone would say, Did you see the new book of poems by so-and-so – we’d say: would you take it to Beirut? That became the smiling but serious judgment mark for any new poetry book. Would it help in a crisis, and all that … Still tends to be my line in the poetry sand.”

Is it worth memorizing? Would you take it to Beirut? A high standard. Perhaps the ultimate one.

But what about music? Does memorizing help? I decided to ask an expert, the pianist and University of North Carolina School of the Arts professor Karen Beres. She was animated and adamant about its value: “Absolutely! You have an increased awareness of the piece. You have a deeper understanding of the movements and the gestures. It’s a wonderful way to more fully know and understand the music… It’s instructive just to play a piece with your eyes closed. It changes, and you feel it differently.” Plus, she added, “You have something to play at parties!”

Ah, parties.

Once, long ago, I was drinking in a pub in Ireland. A couple hours after the official closing, the owner threw the last of us out.  We stood in the village’s main street, and a local professor invited us home. There, he passed around more whiskey, which no one needed, and began reciting Yeats. Then someone else said a poem. I thought of Lou, how well he would fit in. Then, when it became clear that everyone was expected to take a turn, I grew anxious. Suddenly I remembered one from my runs, A.R. Ammons’ “Small Song.”  I said to the group, “The reeds give way to the wind/and give the wind away.”

Years afterwards, in a turbulent time, when my life was in crisis, as I hiked among Northern California redwoods, I thought of the lines again, and I felt myself grow calmer. The poem, coming out of me, provided perspective, balance; it was a “small song” that gave solace.

As so often happens, when I consider something new, I remember and rediscover what I already know. Should I learn some songs by heart? Of course. It’s good to have something that I can offer to a gathering of friends, not as a performance, but as a contribution, a gift, and I should have some music that might comfort in the inevitable difficult times ahead.

Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.


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