A couple of weeks ago, Ian and I drove back to Utah, a 10.5-hour trip under the best of circumstances (like no traffic in Lost Vegas or most of California; no need to stop for bathroom breaks, food, gas, or jaunts to DI; and you can exceed the posted speed limit by 5 to 10 mph), but which usually takes an hour or two longer. To pass the time, I brought a book on tape, which Ian didn't want to listen to, so I heard about 25 minutes of it while he took a nap. We also listened to music for a bit. But the best thing we did was tell each other stories. Ian told me the plot and all the side missions of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.
I told Ian the overarching storyline and some of the side plots of the 1980s tv show Beauty and the Beast.
I was rather amazed at how the miles seemed to fly by (plus I was exceeding the posted speed limit by about 5 mph). Really, if I have to make that trip too many more times, I'm going to start bringing along someone who is willing to listen to 10+ hours of me telling them about the plots of my favorite tv shows and movies. Anyone? Anyone?
As I was relating the tender and bitterly sad story that was Beauty and the Beast, I came to the episode where Catherine reads Vincent a poem, William Wordsworth's 'Surprised by Joy'.
I had memorized this poem, and others, about 15 years ago, when I decided I ought to have some interesting things in my mind with which to entertain myself in case I was stuck in an otherwise dull situation without access to a book. Anyway, I tried to recite it to Ian. To my chagrin, I found I could no longer remember the entire thing. Because I hadn't practiced, I'd forgotten some of the words. Well, it's easy enough to look up the poem and refresh my memory. Here it is:
Surprised by joy - impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport - Oh! with whom
but thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
that spot which no vicissitude can find.
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind.
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
even for the least division of an hour,
have I been so beguiled as to be blind
to my most grievous loss? That thought's return
was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
that neither present time, nor years unborn,
could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
My point in bringing up this story - aside from trying to find a volunteer to drive to Utah with me, and aside from acknowledging that one of the reasons I liked Beauty and the Beast so much was because they used a lot of pretty cool poetry in it - is that memory is a gift, and we should take care of it.
Anyway, back in the day, school teachers used to force kids to memorize things, just as a matter of course, like they used to force them to learn to spell and to add numbers. It was considered all for the kids' own good. I once read an article where this guy thought that, someday in the not-too-distant future, language will have changed so much that students will not be able to understand classic films of the 1930s and 1940s, just like right now they can't understand Shakespeare, or poems by William Wordsworth. It's because the language, he says, was more complex in construction back then. Or because people took longer to say stuff. Or something like that. He said he'd already seen it happening in his classroom.
I'm not so sure if it's actually language that's the problem. I think it's probably more a function of visual perception. As soon as the students perceive that the film is in black and white, their aural faculties suddenly shrink in capacity, sort of like how a snail withdraws when you touch its eyestalks. 'Oh, black and white!' the visual faculties tell the aural ones. 'Black and white!?' repeat the aural faculties. 'Good heavens, black and white equals OLD, and we are uninterested in and even bored by Old Things, therefore we refuse to understand them!' I've seen that happen with children and other young people, and it takes a lot of training to get them to keep their eyestalks extended when an old movie comes on tv. (So to speak.)
I also think part of it is that old movies show a bygone world that many modren youth simply cannot understand. It's like plopping them down on a street corner in a foreign city and telling them to order their own dinner from some old lady street vendor who talks really fast and laughs when you try to pronounce the names of the dishes. For instance, you watch an old Mickey Rooney movie from the 1930s or 1940s and you see Andy Hardy and his classmates with their trouser waistbands belted somewhere in the vicinity of their actual waists, and several of them are wearing button shirts and ties to school. Back then it was the norm for the guys at Carvel High to wear ties, not some standout, loner fashion statement like it is now.
Another instance: in the 1940 film My Favorite Wife, when the family is all gathered in the living room in the evening, the son wants to say his 'piece'. When people talk about a piece in today's movies, they are usually referring to a gun. But in the olden days, when boys wore ties to school, a piece was a recitation, a somewhat lengthy poem or section of a speech (like the Gettysburg Address, for instance) that was memorized and performed before an audience.
By the time I was in school, we still memorized stuff in the early grades, but it was way easier: short poems, the Preamble to the Constitution, stuff like that. And by the time my children were in school, all they were responsible for memorizing was their address and telephone number. And that never even seemed useful to me because every year the school still sent home forms asking what our address and telephone number was. Why didn't they just ask my kids?
I may have done more school memorizations as a child, but the only 'piece' I remember learning and performing, in my 3rd grade class, was Robert Louis Stevenson's poem 'Windy Nights' (from A Child's Garden of Verses):
Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?
Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.
Besides initiating in me an undying appreciation for Robert Louis Stevenson, this poem haunted me when I was a child, and I still frequently think of it on windy nights. It's partly for this reason that, when my kids were growing up, I wanted them to experience the power of poetry for themselves. I wasn't going to force them to memorize, though. I can remember the anguish I sometimes experienced when I had to memorize stuff at home, like Sunday School talks. I think it was for my own good that I memorized those things - it's probably the main reason I enjoy poetry and can understand the dialogue in old movies - but I didn't want to go through that with my kids. So we used to have a weekly poetry reading where they would all choose a poem, review it a bit so they understood what it said, and then read it to the family. Then we'd have a treat. Sometimes I miss those days.
The reason I bring it up is because this Saturday (13 Nov) is RLS's birthday. If I could, I'd pack up the car with a box of shortbread and my attentive auditory companion, and drive to Utah so I could celebrate Robert Louis Stevenson day with my kids.