Death, Thou Shalt Die

I like to memorize old poetry and then perform it rap-battle style aloud to myself when no one else can hear me.  Usually, I do it at work, mumbling to myself as guests walk by, and then I take it home for final performances.  The car ride home is a shameless pentameter litany.  On nights like tonight, when my roomie is out of town on yet another Canadian excursion, the final recitations at the apartment can get rather furious.

You should have seen me two weeks ago, when he was home for the Easter holiday, as I gobbled up the first twenty lines of Beowulf in Old English.  Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. The more I recite, the more powerful I feel, and the more I continue to memorize, the more territory I seem to discover, or as New York Times essayist Jim Holt puts it, the more I become “the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.”

You see, I get bored easily.  When I’m left bookless or laptopless, my mind wanders inevitably.  This can lead to snowballing, spiraling thought-hurricanes, which are very unpleasant, really.  But if I spend my mind-meandering minutes wrestling with a song or a story or, best of all, a piece of metered poetry, it’s like a little vacation or a journey for me.  As you can tell, I don’t always have the best grip on reality.

But what’s the point, really?  Why fill up useful brain server-space with silly old verses?  I like how Mr. Holt explains it.

The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words.  It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.

You see, memorizing and reciting leads to a “physical” and “deeply pleasurable” feeling.  I didn’t need the article to tell me that.  When I was on my journey in Spain two years ago, I had the intense pleasure of telling my own best effort version of Beowulf to a storyteller I met along the way.  I’ve been hooked on recitation ever since.  The physical feeling I had as the story seemed to take me over was an intense rush, almost a supernatural feeling.  Both of my knees were on the verge of giving out from walking, and eventually they did fail me, but the lift of reciting that story literally carried me to the next city.

File:John Donne BBC News.jpg

Tonight’s selection for memorization, “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne, isn’t exactly the epic hero-tale that Beowulf is, but the twelve lines of the sonnet do possess a power, certainly.  It also has got one heck of a tricky meter, but don’t underestimate me.

Donne was this dashing Catholic politician who lived in Shakespeare’s day.  He wrote a lot of sexy, metaphysical poetry in his youth but later fell in love with a lady named Anne.  Unfortunately, his Catholicness made their union an impossibility.   He married her anyway, and spent time in prison for doing it.  Eventually however, they defied the odds, settled down, and had oodles of babies.  Despite his rakish past, he ended up an Anglican priest, proving once and for all that your destiny will always find you, no matter how wispily moustachioed you may be.

Donne wrote his best sonnets in the years leading up to his religious conversion, and they are full of frustration and desire.  Donne also likes to drive ideas home with heavily-accented lists of words that feel, when recited, like you’re repeatedly punching somebody in the face.  Take, for example, some lines from “Batter My Heart,” another one of  Donne’s best sonnets:

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Can you hear the frustration? Knock  Breathe Shine. Break Blow Burn. It’s like pounding your fist on a table, to speak it.  You know you want to.  It is also good to know that this poem is, among many things, a plea for God to know his heart… biblically:

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Well anyway.  Tonight’s verse of choice is no less compelling, as I’m sure the neighbors will agree.  It is about the foolish pride of Death, who thinks he conquers us but never truly will.  Here I present you with “Death Be Not Proud,” now sealed in the concrete trap that is my brain for all eternity:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure–then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.

Hot damn.  I can never resist a poem that makes me feel like I’m playing the tympani.


~ by Rachael on April 30, 2011.

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