NABOKV-L post 0014298, Wed, 6 Dec 2006 22:30:18 -0500

Memorability of poetry
In a message dated 07/12/2006 01:30:55 GMT Standard Time, skb@BOOTLE.BIZ writes:
We discussed the ‘memorability’ of VN’s writings, i.e., the ease (or lack of) in being able to recite VN from memory. Clearly, when VN sticks his gear-lever in P for Poetic, his words are more easily etched in our minds. In fact, poetry is often characterized as ‘memorable prose.’ Thus HH’s opening hymn to Ms Haze trips wonderfully from our tongues (literally!). Yet, consider Claude Shannon’s Information Theory which is based on probabilities. Information is that which ‘reduces our uncertainty.’ For example, if we reach the letter Q/q in an English message string, there is a high probabilty that U/u will follow. The U/u therefore carries little ‘information’ (there’s not much uncertainty). Likewise, when a prosaic lister writes “I’ll strike when the ...” we expect the completion of the cliché “iron is hot.” We are left to ponder WHY poetry is so ‘memorable’ when each unrolling word/phrase is presumably fresh, cliché-free, and unexpected — and therefore packed with ‘information’ -- and therefore more taxing to memorize? Of course, one can mention meter and rhyme as common mnemonic aids.

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Very belatedly, I've been googling Wikipedia on verse, poetry, poetaster, versifier and rhymster/rhymer, and was gratified to find it pretty well endorses what I've been saying. It mentions condensation, which I would call compression or distillation. Which is why I find the prolix ramblings of, say, Whitman or Pound so tedious.

What it omits, however, is the memorability factor, which makes the timely posting above especially apt. Memorability is an essential part of poetry: in fact part of the reason pre-literate societies couched their wisdom in poetry was in order to memorize it more easily.

Memorability alone does not make for poetry, however. Longfellow was not a very good poet, as various later poets have pointed out; but he did have a very happy knack of making his lines memorable.


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