November 29, 2010

Poetry Aloud

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Seven minutes before Prof. Emeritus M. H. Abrams was slated to begin his lecture in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium last Thursday, it was nearly impossible to find a seat. The room was packed and buzzing with men in skinny knit ties discussing anecdotes about Auden and Yeats; sadly, few students seemed to have noted the purple posters that for two weeks had decorated the halls of the Arts Quad.  In just a short introduction, Prof. Ellis Hanson, the chair of the English department, ran through a summary of Abrams’ life —  although the fact that his accomplishments were barely touched on was apparent. Hanson referred to Abrams as Cornell’s national treasure in residence. Since arriving in 1945 he most notably began the Norton Anthology of English Literature (now in it’s 10th edition, not 8th, as Abrams jovially corrected Ellis) and also written The Mirror and the Lamp, named number 25 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction books.  (Ellis noted that Abrams’ book tops the likes of Yeats’, Einstein’s and W.E.B. Dubois’.)  At the end of his introduction, Ellis quoted Abrams in an interview with the Cornell Chronicle from 1999, saying, “If you read quickly to get through a poem to what it means, you have missed the body of the poem.” After such an impressive introduction, the professor turned the spotlight over to Abrams, who sat almost modestly at a table in the center of the stage.  He began his lecture with the famous first lines of Lolita: “Lolita, life of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lo-lee-ta.”  Nabokov, as he noted, was also a Cornell professor, and his first lines perfectly exemplify the topic of the lecture: the power of enunciation.  The lecture was titled The 4th Dimension of Poetry, and his talk was crafted like a well-written essay.  A gripping introduction followed by an explanation to the audience as to how he would unfold his argument.  The primary three dimensions of poetry are:  A) The appearance of the poem as it is in print — this indicates how it should be paced and where the reader should make stops.  B) The sounds of the words as they are read aloud.  C) The meaning of the words (this obviously being the most important dimension, as Abrams himself noted.)The final dimension, also the least recognized and the focus of the lecture, is the oral activity of enunciating a poem.A devotion to the body of a poem is what the famed professor spoke about for the next hour and a half. The sensual undertones of devotion to body were neither lost on the famed professor nor ignored.  Apparently life “makes us desensitized to the oral gestures of a poem,” he sought then to make us aware of the power of these gestures. Abrams began with Auden’s poem “On This Island.”  He walked us through the oral shape of 6 poems first picking them apart, then asking us to read aloud and “taste the consonants,” and then he read the poems aloud himself. After “On this Island” we read Dickinson’s “A Bird came down the Walk,” Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy,”  Lord Tennyson’s “Now sleeps the Crimson Petal,” Ernest Dowson’s “Cynara,” and A.R. Ammon’s “Mansion.”He revealed that Wordsworth’s poems hold healing powers that no others do.  Additionally, he said that “Cynara” is the most erotic poem of the English language (if anyone knows of a poem more erotic, please send it to me, he pled.)  The fact that each verse held wonders to be unlocked was apparent in the reverence that he possessed for each word.As the lecture closed, those who had the time were welcomed upstairs to a reception catered by the Ithaca bakery.  Abrams quietly sat in the corner with a cranberry juice as he received admirers. When I asked what the undergraduate community should be doing with the poetic cannon at our disposal he simply said, “read them, read these poems aloud, preferably to your partners.”  I think I understand why he has become the legend that he is.

Original Author: Natasha Bunzl