One of my New Years resolutions is to memorize more poetry. I've always wanted to be the kind of person who, like my Shakespeare professor in college, could look up at the ceiling in a thoughtful way, and summon germaine and accurate verses to suit the occasion. I'm also plagued by incomplete memories of all my favorite poems; often I hear their rhythm running constantly through my head, but fall short of being able to recall the exact words. All I can ever remember of "Tintern Abbey," for example, is the line "and again I hear these waters," which is obviously not much, but more than I can salvage of one of my favorite verses by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from which only "la la groins la la la, la the la rides through" remains in my head. Very impressive, Emily.
For me, having a poem memorized is much different and more intimate than just having it on hand in a book, to read whenever you get the urge. You embody the poem; you feel its cadences and sense the texture of its words to an extent that's impossible to achieve without the freedom of saying it to yourself, in the quiet of your own head. My goal is to expand my current, very motley assortment of inner poems to include more of those to which I feel a passionate connection or in which I take a particular delight. In honor of this resolution, I think January will be Poem Month here at Library Tuesdays, and in special honor of Poem Month and the wonders of memorization, I'm writing today about the first poem I ever intentionally memorized, Shel Silverstein's "Hungry Mungry."
I'd like to just type the entire poem into this entry, but I think that's sketchy copyright-wise - although this person didn't have any compunction about it, so follow the link if you don't know the poem I'm talking about. If you don't know it, though, you were seriously deprived as a child, because Where the Sidewalk Ends and its companion A Light in the Attic were two of the gross, disturbing and wonderful shining beacons of most childhoods I knew, including my own. I would shriek with hilarity at "Lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy Jane" who "wants a drink of water, so she waits and waits and waits and waits and waits for it to rain" and the tragic adventures of Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too. I looked down in euphoric contempt on the sillypusses who put a brassiere on the camel, and was deliciously scandalized when the narrator of "Too many kids in this tub" proclaims "I just washed a behind/That I'm sure wasn't mine." 'Behind!' I would think. 'He means his bottom!'
Weirdly, as I've never been much for food, my favorite poem was "Hungry Mungry." Something about the idea of a rampaging kid devouring the entire universe and then capping it all off by eating his own body, really tickled me. I would ask to hear it again and again; I loved the absurdity and the cleverly singsong cadence, and I still chuckle every time I think of the lines:
"Soldiers came with tanks and guns.
Said Mungry, 'They can't harm me.'
He just smiled and licked his lips and ate the U.S. Army."
I love a good rhyming punchline. I also love the long list of obscene amounts of food at the beginning of the poem, the list that prepares you for Mungry's later devouring of kitchen table, parents, house, bombers, Africa, and so on. You know the one: it starts with a modest "bowl of mushroom soup" and ends with "thirty-two fried chicken legs, a shank of lamb, a boiled ham, two bowls of grits, some black-eyed peas, four chocolate shakes, eight angel cakes, nine custard pies with münster cheese, ten pots of tea..." I am still a sucker for a well-placed list, actually. I think it was this delightful enumeration of foodstuffs, and possibly my less-than-delightful requests that he read me the poem for the eight hundredth time, that prompted my father to use a brilliant reverse-psychology move and bet me that I couldn't memorize the poem. He said he was sure I couldn't; after all, I was only six, and it was really quite long. Much too hard for me.
I have, predictably, known the thing by heart ever since. At this point, it seems as though I will probably be able to recite it flawlessly for the rest of my days, even after I've forgotten my childrens' names and can't tell you what happened three minutes ago. I suppose, if that's the way it shakes out, that at least I will still be able to make myself laugh.