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Finding the Heart of `Culture'

I CAME late to the pleasure of memorizing, and even now I look on it somewhat warily, like a man about to make a bad bargain. This surely has its roots in my early schooling. I attended what would now be thought of as progressively classical schools: From fifth grade on we studied a curriculum that, when mastered, would confer upon us the blessings of ``culture.'' When, early on, I asked what ``culture'' was, the teacher explained that it was the set of ideas and values I would have in common with everyone in the room. It was one of those great bad moments in the history of teaching. All the kids looked at each other. Tim Eufrasio spoke first.

``You mean I have to have something in common with Tom Simmons?'' he asked incredulously. ``Yeech!''

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The teacher never really got control of that class again. Nevertheless she persevered, and the result was that I still hate Greek mythology, ancient Egyptian architecture, and a number of perfectly good poems and speeches that I had to memorize.

Each week we would all have to memorize something - ``The Charge of the Light Brigade,'' some lines from Shakespeare, the Gettysburg Address - and each week we would sweat and strain and grow red with the embarrassment of forgetting. Afterward, at lunch or on the playground, we'd swear we'd never memorize another thing. We were learning, but not what the teacher expected: we were learning that ideas and words could be enemies, the weapons a teacher could use against our well-being.

What changed this all for me, several years later, was the unexpected appearance of a somewhat shabby old man in my high school English class. A friend of the teacher, he had come to read some poems by Yeats. I knew nothing of Yeats. Or rather, I knew one thing, from a Richard Armour book: If Yeats had been Keats, he would have spelled it ``Kates.'' I was 15 years old, still living off an old antagonism toward literature, culture, and memorizing. I would not willingly have read a Yeats poem. I did not really listen willingly, either, and perhaps in this way I caught the old man's attention. He came over to me after class, as I was getting my books together.

``I have a poem for you,'' he said. ``I mean, a Yeats poem you should read. Look here ....'' he showed me his ancient edition of Yeats. ``It's called, `The Song of Wandering Aengus.' You'd like it. You might even memorize it.''

``I don't memorize,'' I said. He looked at me as if he'd expected the answer - wasn't fazed by it at all. ``Very well, very well,'' he said. ``Look at it for your health.''

Because that struck me as an odd thing to say about a poem, I actually looked at it a few days later. It was a strange, short poem about a fisherman's extraordinary catch. There was something mythological about it, which given my past ought to have bothered me, but there was also something deeply personal, an urgent need and a private quest, that caught my attention.

The speaker of the poem, Aengus, had ``a fire in [his] head;'' something in him was burning, ardent, unsatisfied. I knew that feeling well. Not sure of what he was doing, yet not aimless, he went down to fish at a stream, where he caught ``a little silver trout.''

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When he returned home with his catch, something remarkable happened:

Whan I had lain it on the floor, I went to blow the fire aflame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air.

Out of ordinary events, out of Aengus's need, a beautiful creature arose who gave meaning to his life, and a quest.

It was a deeply romantic poem, full of strong feeling and unlikeliness. It framed for me a longing I had never put into words, a need for direction and beauty and suspense. I read the poem several times; then, a few hours later, while doing miscellaneous homework, I found myself reciting the poem. I had unintentionally memorized it.

Somewhere in that experience, I think, lies the essence of education, an essence which confounds our pedagogic theories and high-minded rhetoric about the importance of ``culture.'' We fulminate about the decline of cultural literacy, we lament our students' ignorance and sloth, as if ``culture'' were a single body of knowledge from which everyone would sooner or later drink. That is not culture; that has never been culture.

Culture is a process of making new, not making old. It is a means by which we regenerate ourselves. It happens when a poem, or a novel, or a TV show, or a movie, or some medium not yet invented, strikes to the heart and opens a new avenue of emotion.

I was fortunate to run into a handful of people - the shabby old devotee of Yeats not the least of them - who woke me up to words and ideas that seemed to come from within me. Many of these words and ideas in fact came from the time-honored texts - Plato, Dante, Montaigne - while others came from less conventional sources - the poems of Native Americans and ``The Book of the Hopi,'' the stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin, the television productions of John Sacret Young. If, from these disparate sources, I were to weave together my own version of ``culture,'' it would run parallel to some of what other people call culture and then diverge widely. That makes perfect sense to me. It means that my education at some point finally began to do what education is supposed to do - make a person whole. For me, one small hallmark of that evolution was the moment when I first memorized a poem because I loved it, knowing that love would change me.

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