Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre,
Et mon sein, où chacun s'est meurtri tour à tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.
This is maybe the 500th time I’ve said the first stanza of this poem by Baudelaire in the past two days. At least today it’s Valentine’s Day, so people are used to love and flowers, not to mention preoccupied mumbling. Although I did end up leaving an entire recitation of this poem on my parents’ voice mail last night, I’m memorizing it not for personal edification, but for my French class. Or maybe they’re the same thing.
I went to a pretty progressive high school, where, aside from knowing Latin verb charts, not much was asked by the way of knowing things by heart. The truth is, memorizing is really not my thing. I know a lot about the American presidents and Greek mythology because that’s what I was really into fifth grade, but that’s about it.
If you asked me to write a sonnet in French using antithesis and romantic imagery, I could do it probably ten times faster than it’s taken me to memorize this. If you wanted me to make a quilt for your first-born child, or fix part of your car, or push a rock up a giant hill, I think it would be a quicker process. I have a midterm Friday and a paper due Monday, and all I’ve been thinking about for the past 24 hours has been this poem.
My French professor, who knows several French poems by heart, remarked that this exercise would allow us to have a poem in your pocket. I’ve been skeptical; it feels now kind of like you’re hands are getting cold, you reach into your coat for your mittens, and BAM! Charles Baudelaire claws at your fingers, grasping you, you are forever entombed in Je Suis Belle O Mortels…
But I’ve started realizing I resist a lot of attempts at finishing; I mean “finishing” both in the sense of being done with something, but also the kind of refinement that Ella Enchanted’s dad was really hipped on. The skill set I usually pride myself on consists of weird things I happen to be good at: balancing things on my head, interpreting songs in American Sign Language, mirror writing, Jenga, walking on stilts, calling customer service, freestyle rapping. (You may judge the relation between the final two as you wish). These are things I work for, but they definitely don’t feel difficult in the same way. I’ve realized I challenge myself in terms of trying to produce good work, but I rarely hit the wall of “Oh my gosh, this is just not my thing.”
But maybe the successive comment here should be: “Yet.” When I started writing this entry, I thought I might actually do the poem OK, but it was more of a sort of intellectual fun times cruise ship. It’s Wednesday now. I know it has to happen.
It seems there are two things going on with memorizing this poem. One is part of this human knowledge inheritance thing which has to do with just knowing good things. We don’t memorize much these days. It’s weird to think about whether the Internet is becoming our collective brain or if educational emphasis has just shifted. I shudder to think of my general ambivalence about dates, places, and chemical elements.
I’m loathe to say it, but I think there are upsides to memorization. Beyond the practical “You probably should know metric conversions,” there’s an interesting aesthetic component. Why should my mental landscape be consumed by advertising jingles and terrible puns? Is there a certain kind of Good that comes from just thinking about beauty? Probably.
My friend Tabatha and I talked about cultural capitol a little bit at lunch today. There could be worse things than the kind of exposure to poetry that only comes when you’ve seen the same damn stanza eight million times!
The other factor at play has to do with a larger idea of the virtue of really working on something you’re just not good at. Something I really don’t think about a lot is how other people learn differently, and I think it’s important to notice. I see it in my classes at Carleton and in the class I lead with high-schoolers, but I forget how real it is to feel like everyone else gets something before you do.
I’m done with my presentation on Persepolis and my midterm on time traveling, and the sugar high from Tuesday has become a bit of low. But I am feeling classier already. I went to have tea with a friend yesterday, and at the end of our conversation, she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, I have this really cool poem I want to show you!” and she read me this beautiful poem on her door. And, for once, as opposed to just graciously thanking her, I was able to whip out: “Hey, I have a poem too! Want to hear about a sphinx in the sky?”
Today’s the day! I woke up, the sun was shining through my window, and I swear I started reciting the last stanza of this poem in my half-sleep.
I was talking to a friend from my Ethics Bowl team this morning, and we were talking about studying abroad. “You take French!” he said. “Say something in French!”
I usually very much do not like these requests. I can neither start just “speaking” in French or ASL or (in a big way) Latin. I know what I say will be unconditionally accepted, but I also know the most likely time I will mess up in another language will be when I’m forced to suddenly transition and feel like I’m put on the spot.
But today I was able to just whip out, you know, some Charles Baudelaire. I knew what I was saying, I knew how to say it, and it felt like a comfortable language crutch, a tool I could use to say, Yeah, I am trying to learn this thing. And I can say more than just “Where’s the bathroom?”
I recited my poem! And as I walked back from my professor’s office to the library, the sunshine broke through the clouds and the ice on the ice rink melted a little more.
I have a fair amount of work this weekend, for all of my classes; I have a bunch of reading and a paper due Monday. At the LTC, we’re trying to put together programs for the spring, and I need to finalize some posters I’ve been working on about science and the liberal arts. But I feel a little more powerful now.
I had been making myself practice my poem for seven minutes every time I opened my email. I find myself now just reopening the page because I can, but also missing part of the trade-off. I miss the funky translation sites I would find online when I forgot my paper copy in my room (these poems seem to be in the public domain, by the way, so there’s your weekend), and the odd but polite looks from those nearby.
I do not want to memorize a poem every week—I can’t tell if I’m feeling light-headed from giving blood yesterday, or going slowly insane. I can hear the assonance in my steps, I’m worried I too am dreaming in stone. But memorizing one poem, one week, may not be the worst thing in the world.