Reciting The Hollow Men

Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now
Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now, 1979

A dear friend of mine and I were recently discussing some of the surprising educational blessings we received in high school in Hutchinson, Kansas. The music program was exceptional, with some truly dedicated teachers. (Thank you Jim Swiggart and Mike McSwain.). There was also a legendary English teacher by the name of Del Knauer.

I will both never forgive and forever be thankful for, Mr. Knauer’s forced memorization exercises.

“Mr. Jewett, would you please stand and recite for the class, the first 18 lines of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English?”

Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Eliot were all committed firmly to memory under the modest threat of classroom peer humiliation.

Legend has it that before he passed, Mr. Knauer was often the victim of anonymous late-night calls, on which, he was provided with proof, that yes, some of his students still remembered those texts.

One such text was T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men. We also read Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

I suppose I would consider myself a member of the Apocalypse Now generation; those of us just young enough to have missed participating in the war in Vietnam, but becoming adults as America began to process what had occurred there. Eliot, Conrad, and Marlon Brando; the poem, the book, and the film became a triad of markers for the gestalt of my twenties.

A few months ago, before the viral scourge that currently torments us, I bought one those high-gain podcasting mics with the idea that I would do some recitations of texts and poems that I admire. I was curious about the sound of my own voice and what effect listening to it might have on my psyche. I thought I might start by trying a recitation of The Hollow Men.

I’ve listened repeatedly to Eliot reading it. He doesn’t include the epigraph that references Conrad and Guy Fawkes, at least in the version I heard. I decided to include it since it is such a signifier for my original memorization. I also tried to mimic the accelerated pace that Eliot uses to end the poem. In my mind I had always heard it in the opposite way, slowing and trailing off.

This not a cheerful piece of work but I hope you can enjoy it, and that my recitation doesn’t muddle its potency.

For Del Knauer.

The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot

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