Memory is both wellspring and subject of much poetry. Time to think back for inspiration
The muses, so the Greeks believed, are the daughters of memory, which may, I suppose, be a way of saying that the arts depend on, are born from, our ability to remember and our need to recognise patterns and meaning in the memories we have stored away in our minds. And poetry is no exception; a great deal of poetry mines memory for its matter. It may be that a poem grows out of the individual memory of the poet, or the poet might give expression to a race or group memory in telling "the tale of the tribe". One way or the other, memory is at the root of things.
The effects of poetry often depend on the tension between shared and unique memories to set up patterns of expectation in the mind of the reader. My use of the Greek myth of Mnemosyne at the start of this blog is as good an example as any of what I mean; if you have the myth in your memory store, my first sentence will be transparent to you, if you don't, then it may seem completely daft. You might click on the link and add a new tale to your store. You may even decide that I'm some kind of pretentious eejit who likes to show off. I'm sure that your reaction depended to some degree on whether or not the story was part of our shared memory pool.
Poets have dealt with questions of memory in a vast range of ways. Austin Clarke, in his long major poem Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, dealt with perhaps the scariest one of them all: what happens to a poet if memory deserts them? Fortunately, Clarke recovered from the breakdown and the resulting memory loss that are charted in the poem, but it remains a powerful record of what the death of memory means.
Memory, like archaeology, deals in layers of deposits laid down over time. When we revisit memories, we often find ourselves digging through several layers and focusing on one particular moment. It is this phenomenon that underlies a poem like A Time Past by Denise Levertov.
The ambiguous nature of memory has also intrigued poets. Robert Browning's poem Memorabilia is a moment of realisation; the memory the poet asks about is not the memory that means most to the person questioned. For George Oppen, a memory of the commonplace becomes an anchor in a world under threat. In his poem up into the silence the green, EE Cummings looks at, or maybe enacts is a better word, memory's fleetingness. Wyatt, in his splendid They Flee From Me, sings another of memory's ambiguities, our powerful ability to disremember that which it has become inconvenient to be associated with.
Perhaps most common of all are those poems in which the poet projects memory forward into the future and, like Christina Rossetti or William Shakespeare, attempts to use poetry to shape how they will be remembered after they have gone. This is, of course, a course of action that is doomed to futility; how can a poem control the memory of others?
So, this week I'm inviting poems on memories, or on memory itself. What are the memories that have shaped your writing? Are there disparities between how you remember events and the way that others recall them that have struck you as interesting or important? Can you, indeed, remember any of them?