Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mnemonic Phonics

I just went down into the basement and lugged two filing boxes up the stairs. One box is filled with volumes of poetry to be stacked on my desk. The other is half-full of compact disks. I open the CDs first, scavenging for background music while I write. I find a fairly recent recording by an indie band and pop it into my stereo. Since Michelle is at work and the puppies are gallivanting around their daycare, I’m likely to sing along. Be glad you can’t hear it.

As I peer down into this box of CDs, I think again of how pop music weaves its way into our lives. This album, for example, is my favorite for driving. When I still lived in
Texas, I would turn the volume to airplane crash levels and weave across the desert buttes and stone hillsides on 180 as I drove the 130 miles to my father’s house. This CD, on the other hand, with its raspy vocals and churning guitars reminds me of an ex-girlfriend and 9/11. And this record, with its lazy vocals and elegant guitar melodies, reminds me of the first week my wife and I spent together as lovers. We all associate music with moments in our lives and tend, often enough, to think of our existence as a narrative that is threaded with song.

About a year after graduate school, I found a job in
Dallas as a proofreader at a publisher of Continuing Medical Education materials. Basically, I made certain that brief essays on recent clinical trials in cancer research did not mangle the English language too badly or contain obvious mistakes. The work was mind numbing, even though the office was full of vibrant, creative people, and I did somehow learn a great deal about medicine. One Friday afternoon, as the minute hand inched closer and closer to the weekend, a graphic designer suddenly started singing. Everybody’s working for the weekend…

Someone else belted out the next line of the chorus, and soon, we were all singing a seemingly forgotten song from the 80s. And as I sang that song, I wondered just how many songs like this I knew. How many pop songs can the average person sing? What would the world be like if we could all channel the energy and intellect needed to store countless silly love songs into something more productive? Would we already have our flying cars?

The problem is that pop songs are marvelously easy to remember. They can spread, from person to person, like a virus, insidiously infecting the intellect of a victim. Indeed, unless you still want to be a rock star, how often do you intentionally try to memorize song lyrics? And yet, you do.


Popular songs are chockfull of techniques for easy memorization—from choruses to rhymes to alliteration to refrains. Plus, when you encounter a song that you adore, you might find yourself listening to it again and again (and again). How could you not remember a song for 20 years under such circumstances?

Yet, if you stroll into a bookstore and pick out any volume of poetry written in the last 100 years and read a single poem, I doubt you will remember that poem for more than a week. And even if you do remember it, you will be left only with impressions, images, and perhaps a general notion of the poem. Poems, unlike popular songs, no longer use the variety of mnemonic devices available to them, and unless you are reading an excellent poet, such memorization will likely be a painful experience—nothing at all like the absent-minded excitement of singing to yourself on your drive home from work.

I can’t help but wonder, would my life be better in any way, if the soundtrack was dotted with the quiet attentiveness of excellent poetry? I do know that if it were possible to slip through a wormhole that landed me back in 1996, I’d thankfully remember not to spend many thousands of dollars on pop music. And even though I’ve thrown a few slim volumes of poetry across the length of one apartment or another to protest their mediocrity, I would not give up those books as easily. I do, however, wish that I could remember their contents as easily as I can remember this CD or that one. And, I know that such poetry is possible.

2 Comments:

Blogger Les said...

Poetry foundation recently did an interesting opinion survey on what people actually think of poetry:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/initiative_pa_summary.html

7:56 PM  
Anonymous me said...

If we didn't have pop songs to waste our precious minds, we would have to invent it, Les. Faced with such a task, we would never have thought of flying cars. Thank G*d for pop music. Remember, everybody really is working for the weekend.

2:17 PM  

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