by Walter Mason
Year by year I become more conscious that I commit less and less to memory. I was in that final generation that made one last half-hearted effort to commit some poetry to memory. The only things that remain with me now are ‘My Country’, half of ‘The Man from Ironbark’ and the first three verses of ‘Advance Australia Fair’. Which, I think, pretty much puts me in the top 10% of the Australian population when it comes to memorised poetry, though I rarely find myself in a situation that demands I draw upon these poetic reserves.
My grandfather had at his command great swathes of Australian poetry, and could recite Lawson, Patterson and Mackellar at length whenever the occasion called for it. And it frequently did. My grandmother had applied her mnemonic skills to popular American song, and there wasn’t an obscure World War Two novelty hit that she couldn’t sing from beginning to end. From ‘Open the Door, Richard’ to ‘Mairzy Doats’, she and her sister were capable of sustaining any country town singalong. Me, I can’t even remember the chorus from CeeLo’s latest. What will we all do when confined to old people’s homes? I very much doubt there will be a piano in the corner at which someone could belt out a slightly off-key rendition of ‘Gangnam Style’ when I’m in my 80s. Besides, who knows how to play the piano anymore?
This crisis was precipitated in the course of research for my doctoral thesis. I am writing a history of self-help literature in Australia, and while searching for a reference I was deep into a book by Norman Vincent Peale called “Stay Alive All Your Life.” In it he recommended a program for the memorisation of inspirational Biblical verse. He urges readers to underline the most uplifting passages they encounter and then, each day, commit one to memory. “At the end of one week,” he points out, “seven life-changing passages should have become a definite part of your mental equipment…at the end of a month you will have received into consciousness thirty passages of faith and hope and courage” (p. 73).
Australian writer and spiritual teacher Stephanie Dowrick has recommended this, too, in her most recent book, “Heaven on Earth,” which is a modern interfaith prayer book. She encourages the repetition and memorisation of prayers and spiritual sayings: “Learn it by heart,” she writes, “or take just a single phrase and imbue it with the power of a mantra” (p. 19).
Now this got me thinking. What if I created my own plan of memorisation? What if I assembled a month’s worth of pithy sayings, beautiful expressions and famous maxims from across the world of literature? How dazzling would I become at dinner parties? I could become the person who said things like “Well, to paraphrase dear old Ruskin…” instead of “Didn’t Hemingway say something about that once? I can’t remember where, or what he said exactly, but I am pretty sure it was him. Yeah, Hemingway. Must look that up.”
So I have stumbled upon another project. For the next week or so I am going to be collecting brilliance. Secular or religious, I don’t care. I just want to make something and someone cleverer than me “a definite part of my mental equipment.” If you grew up watching Rumpole on the ABC, you’ll know the thing I mean. That character had, in his youth, learned the entire “Oxford Book of English Verse” (the Arthur Quiller-Couch edition) by heart, and colourful snatches of verse littered his speech, to great effect. I have always wanted to be like that. But I have until now been too damn lazy, and my phone now has Google so why even bother memorising entire pages of Swinburne or Wilde?
Why? Because I honestly believe it pushes out some of the crap. It extinguishes the memory of how many seasons of ‘Duck Dynasty’ I have seen. It pushes aside the monstrous grudge I have been nursing against someone who made a passive aggressive comment on Twitter that wasn’t even directed at me. If, instead of reflecting on the wrong-headed rant of someone I heard at a writers’ festival two months ago, I could instantly begin channelling the poems of Christina Rossetti, I genuinely believe I will be a better and happier person, and I think my brain will function better because of it. I want to, as Norman Vincent Peale puts it, “fill my mind with fear-eliminating words.”
So, any tips? Where do I begin in my program of creating a mental repertoire of powerful literary quotation? Help shape my mind.