More than any other type of writing, poetry and memory are intricately linked.
Memory can trigger poetry, and vice versa. You mourn the loss of a loved one and feel compelled to compose an elegy. Or you pen a line about joy and remember the first time you held your child.
Your poetic memory bank is richer than you think. It has the power to link you to the past via the voices of the masters, the power to save your life (or sanity), and the power to reconnect you to people and places now lost.
Growing up, many of us had to memorize poetry in grade school. (Sadly, the practice isn’t as widespread anymore.) When poets memorize works, they have access to great literature in their minds. When you recite a poem, to yourself or others, you also practice writing by feeling the cadence of verse or envisioning the poetic imagery.
In high school, I had to memorize Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” which taught me life-lessons as an adult. You probably re-member the cadence and rhyme: “Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,/ We people on the pavement looked at him:/ He was a gentleman, from sole to crown,/ Clean favored, and imperially slim. …” Of course, despite the blessings in his life, Richard Cory kills himself and shocks the town.
As a 17 year old, the poem meant little to me. Something I recited as I walked the long stretch between Lyndhurst and Rutherford, New Jersey, to go shopping or to a dance. But even then the meter and rhyme were drumming prosody into my head. Later the poem taught me not to be swayed by outward appearances. And most recently the lyric has enlightened me about the hardship of the human condition.
The beauty now, as a mature poet, is that I can memorize poems according to what I need as a person or want to learn as a writer. I don’t memorize the way I did in grade school–mouthing a line and closing my eyes, then doing the same with two lines and so forth–as homework, the night before a test.
Each morning before beginning work, I simply turn on my PC and pick a selection from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, a CD-ROM anthology from Voyager. The anthology, edited by poet and critic John Hollander, contains more than 1,000 poems by nearly 150 poets (including Robinson’s “Richard Cory”). Many of the selections are read by famous poets, critics and performers.
In fact, Hollander opens the anthology with a couplet by Henry David Thoreau, easily memorized by and of interest to all writers:
My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.
With CD-ROM technology, audio accompanies selections. The more you play a selection, the more you remember it. After a dozen plays or so, recite the poem along with the reader, the way you would sing along with a popular tune on the radio.
Before you know it, you will be reciting the work as easily as a song.
Many of you know that poetry helped me overcome the loss of a child, the subject of my poetry collection, The Visionary.
My friend Saul Bennett, another journalist, similarly endured the death of a daughter and found solace in verse.
Bennett, now a public relations consultant, was formerly president of Robert Marston Marketing Communications in New York City. On July 14, 1994, his eldest child, Sara–a 24-year-old journalist–died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.
All mourning involves memory. And memory, especially about loss, generates powerful, publishable poems. In the first year after his daughter’s death, Bennett placed poems in such fine magazines as Amelia, The Christian Century and Eclectic Literary Forum. In the second year he wrote a full-length collection about his daughter, titled New Fields and Other Stones/On a Child’s Death (Archer Books).
Bennett’s comments about poetry and memory are as eloquent as a soliloquy. “I’d written prose my entire professional life, and for many months after Sara died, I kept a log,” he recalls. At the time he had not tried writing poetry. However, while writing in his log, he remembered an incident that struck him as poetic. “This was an awesome revelation for me.
“Days later, I attempted my first poem, based on how I felt when under a pocket magnifying glass I examined Sara in a photograph taken with her parents less than two weeks before her death, possibly the last photo in which Sara appeared.”
Here are beginning stanzas of “Measurements,” focusing on that symbolic magnifying glass:
like a flattened tortoise head
from its narrow soft plastic
Navy case, a piddling tool
that now a half-year “afterward”
has discovered–what luck! –
–reprinted from The Christian Century
Bennett continues: “To say that, since, writing poems has been important for me is to say that the act of breathing is said to play a role in the life process. For this parent of a wonderfully healthy child dead suddenly, poetry has provided healing, hope, utter transformation, reconciliation with aspects of my own childhood and a continuing `outer mind’ experience.”
Via poetry and memory, Bennett adds, he has felt physically reunited with his late daughter. “I am convinced Sara is alive in those poems. And why should she not be?”
Bennett has tapped into a universal memory bank, popularly known as “the muse.”
Fact is, all great poets in every culture have written about the immortality of poetry. Shakespeare’s couplet to Sonnet #18 is, perhaps, the most memorized of works celebrating poetry and memory: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Like Bennett you, too, can use poetry to revive the muse too long in mourning. Elegies are thought to represent death, but they really give life. When you compose in memory of a loved one, ask yourself:
* What image–a watch, a wallet, a magnifying glass–hearkens memories of this person or somehow symbolizes his or her life?
* How, still, are our two lives bound together through that image?
* If the person were with me now, as I write, what would he or she say about the image from the vast beyond (where the muse dwells)?
In a word, the poetry of memory is expansive. It has the power to enliven your verse and voice–in small or substantial ways–whether echoing through the ages, through a CDROM, or through the muse that dwells within you.