Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Last Week

I attempt to memorize one poem per day and read one novel per week.

(I often recite the daily poem while I am riding my bicycle around LA, and this week I rode the LA Bike Tour with 10,000 other cyclists - thus the picture.)

My book last week was F. Scott Fitzgerald's How Tender is the Night. It has been a long time since I read Gatsby, so I can't make comparisons even though that seems like the obvious first thing to do in any commentary on anything else by Fitzgerald. All I really want to say about Tender is the Night is that (as the back cover and the Fitzgerald bio both promised) it offers remarkable insights into how people socialize. To give a very minute example, in one stretch of dialogue a character pauses to remember a name, and the other character, during the hesitation, changes the subject. Whatever story the first character was beginning is abandoned forever.

Last week, I memorized Marianne Moore's "What are Years?" and Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque" (of course) and "The Second Coming" by Yeats. And Whitman's [28] from the 1855 Leaves of Grass took four days to memorize.

Observations on repetition: even the shortest poem can have a memory. This might seem obvious, but for me it was the insight of the week: repeating doesn't imply that you're uninventive. "Smirk" appears twice in "Chaplinesque," first in stanza 3 -
We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index towards us
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!
and then again in the last stanza -
The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Without the first "smirk" the second "smirk" would be impossibly difficult, a puzzle with little meaning.
What else. Turns out that Whitman is impossibly arhythmical. [28] resembles a Gregorian chant in its refusal to present any kind of beat or meter. As a result, Whitman is hard to memorize. He repeats, and will repeat many many times, but he does not make patterns. It reminds me of how most people have a hard time generating random sequences. For example, if asked to fabricate the outcome of flipping a coin many times in a row, by writing "H" for heads and "T" for tails, most people will write something like this:


Most people will never include something like this:


but probabilistically, the latter is just as likely as the former.

Whitman understood that it is okay to repeat and repeat and repeat, even though aesthetics might dictate otherwise. He could break a pattern and fall back in, the movement dictated by something more important than meter or rhythm.

The resulting verse is like falling raindrops, or rustling grass; both regular and random, both predictable and wild.

Como las bicicletas aqui.