January 21, 2008
Poetry, Like Pippa, Passes

Below is the lede of William Kristol’s not too bad column in today’s New York Times.

In his victory speech after winning the South Carolina primary Saturday night, John McCain acknowledged the economic challenges we face, and then said: “But nothing is inevitable in our country. We are the captains of our fate.”

McCain comes from a generation that, in its youth, was made to memorize poetry. And when I was able to get in touch with him Sunday in Florida, he told me that one of the poems he had memorized in school was William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” (1875).

It sounds from this as if Kristol spotted “captains of our fate” as something a little more flowery than McCain’s standard oratory, perhaps even poetry of some sort. In any event, an obscure reference worth chasing down with the senator himself.

If Kristol couldn’t quite place “Invictus” I’m not surprised. Ten years or so after he was graduated from Harvard, I warned one of my classes there not to put off something or other, since "at my back I always hear time's wingèd chariot hurrying near."

They looked puzzled, as if I had broken into demotic Greek. Did what I just said sound like me? I asked. No. Did you think it might have been a quotation? Probably. Has anyone ever heard of a poem called "To His Coy Mistress?" Of Andrew Marvell? No and no.

The next day I handed out the easiest poetry quiz I had been able to put together. The students were to fill in the missing word or words from lines that I figured every high school over-achiever would surely know…



I figured wrong. None of the freshmen got, "The boy stood on the burning _____." None got, "Half a league, half a league, half a league _____." One got, "Beneath the spreading chestnut tree the village _____ _____." One got, "I met a traveler from an antique _____." Only one got, "You're a better man than I am, _____ _____." (Two others guessed, "Charlie Brown.") The highest score was 14 right out of 20 questions; the lowest was two right; the average was seven.

The only question everybody got right was a freebie I had thrown in: "This Bud's for _____." Actually I thought I had thrown in another freebie, "Winstons taste good, like a _____ _____," but only four students got it. Cigarette ads, I remembered too late, had disappeared from TV when they were barely out of diapers. Nor was my class an exception. When a colleague, the poet Felicia Lamport, gave the same quiz to her students, they did no better.

Stupidity can hardly have been the reason. Harvard undergraduates are by no means as brilliant as the world imagines, but most of them are above average and a few are very bright indeed.

Nor were my students likely to have neglected their poetry homework in high school. They didn’t make it to Harvard by neglecting homework. If they hadn't learned poetry, no one had given it to them to learn.

This turned out to be the case. One or two of the students said they had been made to memorize a passage from Shakespeare in high school, but that was all. Most had been required to read a handful of poems; none had ever been moved to memorize one on his or her own. When I told them I had done that very thing as a schoolboy, and more than once too, they couldn't see the sense in it.

There they were then, poetry aliterates but no more to be blamed for that than a glass is to blame for being empty. Nobody had bothered to fill them, as a wonderful high school teacher named Jack McGiffert had once tried to fill me.

To see whether Mr. McGiffert had been an exception, though, I gave my quiz to the other writing teachers in the department. The older they were, the better they did. The youngest teacher, who was working on his doctoral dissertation in English Literature and is now a tenured professor, scored as poorly as my class had.

Well, what does all this mean except that each generation has its own language, its own poetry? After Felicia Lamport gave my test to her students they made up a test for her, with questions like, "We all live in a yellow _____." She only got two right.

This misses the point, though. I might have expected my father to be ignorant of Doonesbury, for instance, and he was. He might have expected me to be ignorant of Krazy Kat, and I was. But neither of us was ignorant of Poe and Whitman, Keats and Shelley, as Harvard's freshmen were and no doubt still are.

Still, what's the difference? Poetry is just the latest thing to have dropped off our cultural radar, after all; it joins mythology, the classics and the King James Bible below the horizon. And who cares, anyway?

Margaret are you grieving over golden oldies leaving? Of course you’re not. Who needs artifacts from the primitive dawn of communications technology when there’s a reality show right up there on the plasma screen?

So, yo, Margaret — This crud's for you.


Posted by Jerome Doolittle at January 21, 2008 04:32 PM
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Twas brillig and the ____ ____.

Oh freddled gruntbuggly, thy ____ are to me as plurdled gabbleblotchets on a ____ bee.


Posted by: Michael on January 21, 2008 6:32 PM

If you can trust yourself when all men __________ _________

We had to memorize that one in 10th grade in Mrs. Wymans class. Poor Toog T. He got caught reading it instead from a hidden paper instead of saying it from memory and they made him stand in front of the whole school and say it and he still couldn't make it past the third line.

I almost got the "smithy stood". I'm surprised they didn't know a couple of the others.

I wanted to do Blacksmith instead of Smithy, but Mrs. Batard corrected me. I have a little booklet published in the late 1800's here with only that poem in it. I fancied it - it was a child's book, much like children's books are printed today and boughti if off of Ebay for a dollar or two. But I couldn't tell you about Green Eggs and Ham or The Cat in the Hat (Mabel is enough) even though that was my generation.

Too bad I got the cigarette one too well.

I just wish Mrs. Wyman hadn't picked Rudyard Kipling. Not exactly someone who inspired a love for poetry, at least for me.

And the Greek and Roman literature that the founding fathers knew so well is practically as extinct as Latin is these days.

Posted by: Buck on January 21, 2008 6:59 PM

Thanks go to John Carey, my high school English teacher, for this "Invictus" parody:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
I have not fallen in a hole.

Posted by: Bob Lewis on January 21, 2008 8:22 PM

For anyone interested, here’s my entire quiz. First prize is admission to Harvard:

1. I think that I shall never see a poem lovely _________. (three words)

2. But there is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casey ________. (three words)

3. This Bud’s for _____. (one word)

4. Beneath the spreading chestnut tree, the village _______. (two words)

5. You’re a better man than I am, _______. (two words)

6. Good fences make ______. (two words)

7. East is east and west is west, and never the twain ______. (two words)

8. When lilacs last in the dooryard _____. (one word)

9. A little knowledge is a ______. (two words)

10. The boy stood on the burning ______. (one word)

11. In Xanadu did ______. (two words)

12. I met a traveler from an antique _____. (one word)

13. Water, water everywheere, nor any drop ______. (two words)

14. Quoth the raven, _____. (one word)

15. A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and _____. (one word)

16. Winstons taste good, like a ______. (two words)

17. Half a league, half a league, half a league ______. (one word)

18. The fog comes in on little _______. (two words)

19. But ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends it gives a lovely ______. (one word)

20. In the room the women come and go, talking of ______. (one word)

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on January 22, 2008 4:02 PM

Please tell me that wasn't the class of '89?

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on January 22, 2008 6:02 PM

From memory:

1. as a tree
2. has struck out
3. for you
4. Smithy stands (I cheated on this one because I looked it up earlier and Mrs. Batard corrected me when I wanted to say Blacksmith instead of smithy). Therefore wrong. Scholarship lost.
5. Gunga Din (thanks to Jim Croce)
6. Good neighbors
7. shall meet
8. bloombed (my college poetry professor)
9. dangerous thing
10. I'm clueless but my guess would be Bush.
read that one however you want.
11. travelers meet (a guess but probably wrong)
12. land
13 to drink
14 Nevermore
15. You (another guess) second guess -music
16. cigarette should (still dealing with another brand).
17. forward
18. clueless
19. scent (another guess)
20. gossip (I really don't know but I'm presuming it's old and sexist).

Alright, how'd I do. I know the one's I got right, but were any guesses correct?

Posted by: Buck on January 22, 2008 6:05 PM

Can I recall my paper for a correction. I just realized after I said it aloud that #17 is onward.

Posted by: Buck on January 22, 2008 6:09 PM

Oh crap. I also misspelled #8. bloomed.

Posted by: Buck on January 22, 2008 6:11 PM

It would have been the fall semester, Martha, because I was announcing some kind of workshop on how to avoid procrastination and the dean's office wouldn't have put that off till the spring semester, would they? And I suspect it was my own first year of teaching, because by the second year I wouldn't have been surprised that Harvard freshmen were clueless about the poetic canon of their native language. And it couldn't have been your section or you wouldn't be asking the question. By subtraction, then, we come to my other section in the fall of 1985, the one that contained the actor Elizabeth Shue and a French guy -- the only student during my five years there ever to use the ashtray I kept in my office for smokers.

As for you, Buck, you're definite Harvard material. The only ones you got wrong were 11, 15, 18, 19 and 20. This gives you a mark of 75%, which would have been an A- under the grade inflation of the day. All the students at Harvard were not just above average, but way, way above average.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on January 22, 2008 8:41 PM

Well, I couldn't afford it anyway. But I could go back to the University of South Carolina again for free when I turn 65, although I expect the Republicans who now run the state to get rid of that benefit soon enough.

Well, actually #10 I got wrong too I think - I was thinking of that chapter about Moses in Exodus.

And I want partial credit for #19. It's no longer environmentally responsible to burn tallow - we need to be able to smell the malodorous candles burning in our midst - like Kristol for example.

Posted by: Buck on January 22, 2008 9:14 PM

woo hoo!! - 20 for 20 without resorting to Google!

I'll pass on the Harvard thingie - I'm too busy paying for my daughters' tuitions.

Back atcha, with a bit of the 'poetry' of the 20th century thrown in too:

"There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun by the men who ________ (3 words)"

"Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the _________(2 words)"

"I saw the best minds of _________(2 words)"

"I let you live in my penthouse, but you called it a shack.
"I gave you seven children, And now ______(5 words)"

"They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the _________(2 words)"

Posted by: Charlie on January 22, 2008 9:35 PM

Oh, so Harvard admits women now?

(I know the Sandberg and the Eliot, but Xanadu?)

Posted by: Joyful Alternative on January 22, 2008 10:02 PM

You're right about missing number 10, Buck. I overlooked it. "The boy stood on the burning deck/ whence all but he had fled./The flame that lit the battle's wreck/ shone round him o'er the dead." By the fortunately forgotten 19th century poetaster, Felicia Hemans.

Joyful: Coleridge's opium dream: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree/ where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man/ down to a sunless sea…" (If memory serves.)

Charlie: Is the Service one "dig for gold?" Ginsberg is "my generation," no?

I blank on the others. Are they poetry?

What about the next to last paragraph in my original post? Anyone catch the reference in the first sentence?

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on January 22, 2008 10:46 PM

"And it couldn't have been your section or you wouldn't be asking the question."

I'm not sure. The blanks look very very vaguely familiar but surely I wasn't that dim... Fourteen or less, really?

Honest, as of this morning "Gunga Din" was the only answer that took me a while, but now I can't prove it.


Joy, Harvard has admitted women for some years although the undergraduate Lamont Library was closed to them until the late 1960s on the grounds that they would distract the young gentlemen from their studies -- a decision thoroughly ayatollish in mentality that communicated baldly who the "real" students were thought to be.

A couple of generations of diplomas used the Harvard and Radcliffe insignia for females but Harvard only for males. Radcliffe was more recently demoted to "institute," to the notable dismay of Ursula LeGuin '51 among others.


Oh, for pity's sake, Mr. D., learn your mid-century classics. The last one is "Desolation Row," released in 1965 which is a while back by almost any standard. As I suspect you'll agree, every word of it is true. See http://bobdylan.com/moderntimes/songs/desolation.html .

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on January 22, 2008 11:31 PM

Well, my guess would be that it's not about Chuck Norris, but a sort of combination of the two names and their personas. And her colleague Margaret.

But Google can lead one in the wrong direction. I wouldn't have a clue without some google sleuthing. But I can't say I know much about either of the two of them.

If you're talking about the historical Pippa, I'm at a loss. Or if the first line is not the heading, I'm still lost.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

Posted by: Buck on January 22, 2008 11:46 PM

Martha, I'm teasing Jerry. Harvard (Yale, etc.) wasn't an option when I was in high school (when the career options amounted to teaching and nursing).

Posted by: Joyful Alternative on January 23, 2008 8:49 AM

Thanks for the Dylan link, Martha. My problem with Dylan is that I never succeeded in understanding him. Understanding in the most basic sense, that is. I could never make out the words he was saying/singing. And Google wasn't yet even a blip in the pre-born brain of Brin.

And Buck: Google has failed you. "Pippa Passes" is
the title of a play in verse by Robert Browning. And the Margaret reference is to one of the world's great poems, Spring and Fall: to a young child, by Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins—

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves, líke the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Áh! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on January 23, 2008 9:04 AM

.. men who moil for gold, not dig for gold

Posted by: on January 23, 2008 10:32 PM

Martha, I like Dylan to a point. When he plugged in that electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival and gave up real protest singing, I didn't find him interesting anymore. Except for an occasional work here or there. Course that was in the early 60's and I was a wee babe but I picked up on his music later when the new stuff was popular and quickly discovered when the great Dylan lived.

But here's part of something of a similar nature that I know by heart from beginning to end.

Can anyone get this one?

Some will rob with you with a six-gun, some with a ___________ ______________. two words

Extra prizes for the name of the author and the title.

Posted by: Buck on January 24, 2008 6:25 AM

Joy, sorry to have been dense above.

Thanks for the chance at a consolation prize, Buck.
It's "fountain pen," of course, in Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd."

That verse, from memory:

"As through this world I've traveled
I've seen lots of funny men
Some rob you with a six-gun
and some with a fountain pen."

Buck, give "Desolation Row" a chance, even if it does take a transparent swipe at Pete Seeger. (I'd say he was the 'jealous monk' from Dylan's POV, no?) And, Jerry, it's one of the ones Dylan always enunciated well in performance.

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on January 27, 2008 1:05 AM
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