Thursday, July 17, 2008

Who says you can't memorize Ashbery?

People who think that poems should always rhyme often cite memorability as the most important criterion for a poem's value.  (Is there a smiley for eye-rolling?  I would like to use it right about now.)  Anyway, these people complain that contemporary poetry is worthless because you can't memorize it.  (More eye-rolling.)  These people often pick on John Ashbery as the prime example of unmemorizability.  (Roll roll roll.)  These people are wrong.  You can memorize any poem if you just put a little effort into it, spend a lot of time with the poem.  Of course I think the whole notion of memorability as a criterion is dumb, but I'll play along for now and offer proof that you can in fact memorize an Ashbery poem.  Look, if I can do it, you can do it.  Here is "The Military Base", typed from memory.  (I haven't read the poem in months.)  (I couldn't remember the correct line breaks, but that hardly matters when you're reciting it out loud.)  (By the way, when I think of memorability in poetry, I place more importance on the memory of the experience of reading than on the memory of the actual poem.)


THE MILITARY BASE


Now, in summer, the handiwork of spring 
is all around us.  What did we think 
those tendrils were for, except to go on
growing some more, and then collapse,
totally disinterested.  Uninterested
is probably what I should say but
they seem to like it here.  At any rate
their secret says so, like a B-flat clarinet
under the arches of some grove.

The house took a direct hit,
but it didn't matter.  The next moment
it was intact, though transparent.
No injuries were reported.
There were no reports of looting
or insane buggery behind altars.


* * *

Now, here it is again, with correct linebreaks.  (I know they're correct because the book is now sitting open on my lap.)


THE MILITARY BASE


Now, in summer, the handiwork of spring
is all around us.  What did we think those
tendrils were for, except to go on growing
some more, and then collapse, totally
disinterested.  "Uninterested" is probably
what I should say, but they seem to like it here.
At any rate, their secret says so,
like a B-flat clarinet under the arches
of some grove.

The house took a direct hit
but it didn't matter; the next moment
it was intact, though transparent.
No injuries were reported.
There were no reports of looting
or insane buggery behind altars.