Recitation Considered as a Fine Art
by Jerome McGann
Any man of mechanical talents may, from the writings of Derrida or Jacques Lacan, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Aristotle's, and from those of Dante or Shakespeare an infinite number. But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine.
And 'tis my faith that every poem,
Enjoys the air I breathe.
As we know, students—most ordinary and intelligent people, for that matter—imagine poems are difficult, full of deep meanings that have to be deciphered. It’s our fault that this dismal and quite mistaken view prevails. We’ve imagined that our proud schools of criticism have more to show us than the poetry itself. Above every poem we "teachers" have inscribed a hellish warning: Abandon hope, all you who enter here.
As Gertrude Stein would say, we've got to begin again at the beginning, which is where poetry always locates itself anyway. For poetry is more like music than it is like fiction. Remember, novels emerged out of traditions of moral instruction. You don't memorize novels, you think about their worlds and you learn their lessons. But you do memorize poetry.
Why is that? Well, think about Edward Lear, about Dr. Seuss, about Blake’s "Songs." We read "The Pelican Chorus" or "The Jumblies" to our children and they run over with laughter and happiness.
In Xanadu, on the hills of the Chankly Bore, before ever we ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we speak an Adamic language. When we memorize poems we re-imagine the practice of that language.
But before you can memorize you have to do your lessons. You have to learn to recite.
To begin again, forget about the meanings, they come along for the ride (they come with the territory). The poem is a musical score written in our mother tongue. Our bodies are the instruments it was made for. Perform:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is. . . . Be thou me, impetuous one.
The poem will obey if you pay attention to what you’re doing. Its mechanisms aren't difficult, even if they are amazingly flexible. They are as natural to us as speaking and singing. We learned them before we knew them, on the banks of the Derwent, in our mother’s or our nurse’s arms.
The basic structure is like a double helix—one strand is linguistic—a syntax and a semantics—the other is prosodic, made of rhythmical and acoustic units (metre and rhyme). We practice to discover their synchrony. The two play off each other, and while every poem permits a personal inflection of its elements, your freedom is constrained. That constraint is telling you to pay attention to what you're doing.
When you set out to perform a poem, you don’t proceed willy-nilly. You try it out and test its possibilities. There will always be multiple possibilities. Eventually, in the act itself, you’ll have to make a performance decision. When you do that you'll have something else to look at and think about. What was good about what you did, what wasn't. And so you can begin again.
As Gertrude Stein says, beginning again and again.
Postlapsarian Note: In my experience, many difficulties of meaning disappear when students begin to construct and perform recitations. Indeed, only then do many other significant difficulties of meaning begin to reveal themselves. (Perhaps in poetry we're always working to find those beginnings.) Recitation compels you to give a specific shape to the text's linguistic and prosodic relations. They can't speak the words until your mouth, your lungs, and—indeed—your whole body understands how to give them articulate shape so that someone else will also understand. It's not hard to do but it does take practice. And you have to pay attention. And the more you do it, the better you get.
Of course, poems have eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There aren't many masterpieces like "The Lamb." Most are "like the scorpion, girt by fire." They have assayed the bitter-sweet of a Shakespearean fruit. Nonetheless, poetry proposes for its immediate object pleasure, not truth, and that commitment, as the poet says, "has made all the difference." It is why poetry, as the atheist Shelley precisely puts the matter, "redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man."