Poetic Thought of the Day: Memory & Voice


I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop…
– Wislawa Szymborska, Here

When I started rooting around for a good thought of the day I inevitably came to Wislawa Szymborska whose quirkiness and humor always align me with the truths of self and memory and its interminable arguments about life, love, and everything. As in many things Freud has fallen out of fashion, his scientism and the mythological entities of Eros and Thanatos having fallen into that inevitable cult and culture of malaise, ineptitude, and satirical recrimination against all things modernist. We seem like the disinherited children of both modernism and post-modernism at the moment, lost in a between-times that looks more like those between-the-acts scenes in a Ben Jonson comedy as if our lives were just a dress rehearsal for the main event that is soon to be staged in a climate theatre coming soon. Yet, there is one thing that Freud offered us in his appraisal of memory and its ability to mask and hide from us the truth of our own pasts; it’s as if we all lie in make believe worlds that we all presume are factual, but that once inspected deliver us to the strange truth that most of what we know of our own personal history and past in memory is full of blanks, holes, white spots and noise; that, in fact, we typically only remember the good times vaguely, but know in quite vivid detail all the little painful incidents as if they happened yesterday. But even these painful episodes in life are sometimes to harsh to bare; or, as T.S. Eliot once quipped in a now famous poem: “Humans cannot bare too much reality!”. Funny, I remember the line but have trouble remembering the title of the poem. Well, memory is like that, especially poetic memory.

There is a difference between our actual life history, our physical and mental memories of the past, and the poetic memories of not only that past, but of the whole complex of memorable moments in confrontation with art, philosophy, literature, poetry, and love. Sometimes our confrontation with a poem, a short story, a novel, an essay, etc. can be so emotional and memorable that we produce moments of pain, anguish, anger, happiness, etc. all of which instills within our brain and neurons pathways that allow us to store such memories in ways that allow for fast retrieval as we meet such problems or obstacles again in real life. And this is one of the most powerful aspects of literature and especially poetry, it gives us both comfort and a security system, a defense system against all those things in real life that terrorize us, emotional deplete us, shame us, pull us back down into worlds of vanity and puerility, and most of all depress us and bring on such things as self-pity and that dread feeling of solitude and solipsism that poets love to describe. Yet, that’s it, they describe it, objectify it so that we hopefully don’t have to live it out permanently in our lives, so that we can learn from it and identify with such emotions and temperaments in ways that obviates and reduces the affective power that such emotions have over us.

Of course this is a side effect of poetry rather than its main purpose, poetry is much more than that and it would be silly to narrow poetry down to some kind of immunological program for curing what ails our souls and minds. But starting with Wordsworth onward just like many other programs after the Enlightenment we discovered the Self, Individuality, and the dark side of solitude and solipsism in which the self can be trapped in its own fictions and illusions without outlet, a form of self-enclosed tyranny of the mind. As I read poetry on a daily basis across the web I realize just how alive Wordsworth and the Romantic poets still are in the minds and hearts of people, even is these poets have never read a line of any of those poets works. Why? Because the problems or poetic selfhood that was for the most part the problem of poetic memory was central to these poets. Each of them was at a crossroads of cultural memory, in which the old feudal and monarchical systems of memory and self were crushed a fatal blow – at least theoretically; and, in their time no one knew just yet what type of being should inhabit what was coming next. Democracy was still at that time theoretical for the most part. The early systems in America and Europe still in infancy and still lacking intelligent responses other than the pamphleteers and the political thinkers of the era. 

Otherwise people were versed in the literature of the philosophes of France and Germany. Kant being the central thinker of that early era for the Romantics. This would be the age in which the Idealists Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel, along with Emerson and Thoreau in America and the Romantic poets in Germany, France and England would make the biggest impact. I don’t want to do a history of this period, but just wish to point out that so many explosive thoughts were emerging at this time about the notion of individuality (Locke, Mills, Kant, Hegel, Emerson) and society (Fourier, early socialists and utopianists), etc. that most people were struggling not with such notions but to just survive in the emerging Industrial Age as well.  

When one thinks about all the things hitting the modern world after feudalism had reigned for a thousand years and more one must be amazed how great these few poets were to somehow confront this past and forge and make things new, invent the possibility of a new notion of life, liberty, individuality, etc. out of mere words and poems, but they did it. Wordsworth created the egotist sublime, the first poetry not bound to the old mythologies of the past. That in itself immortalized him for generations to come. He to me is the first and foremost child of the enlightenment to bring this about. For all their greatness Byron, Shelley and Keats still used the old Roman and Greek myths in a secular way to invent new possibilities. William Blake would invent his own personal mythology in which generations of critics would have to come along to help us understand it. But Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge brought both the egotistical and the unconscious or gothic mode to us. Even Heinrich Heine and Friedrich Hölderlin in Germany or Victor Hugo in France would all contribute to this mode of poetic thinking in their various ways.

One could say that this was the poetry of internal memory rather than objective cultural memory as in the Epic or Lyric traditions preceding this time period. This sense of a turning inward or of reflecting upon self and identity was central to this poetry and has been in such modern and postmodern poetries a part of the aesthetic of confessional modes. I’m sure that many never think about such things are if they have the critical works all this is couched in was so academic and dry, or just plain abstruse and indigestible by common reader standards that if one was interested that they’d find in a few paragraphs that the authors of such books did not have them in mind as readers. Which is for the most part the state of academia in our time. It’s become ingrown, elitist, and almost abject in its abstruse philosophical and literary pursuits vying over the like of Slavoj Zizek, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, New Materialism, Medieval turns in Object Oriented Thought or Marxism, or… one could name an endless parade of thinkers that most common readers would be turned off by just trying to get passed the first paragraph.  

Of course I’ve written a great deal on such thinkers and their ideas and one can find such thoughts in my Impossible Object(s) & Other Speculations, but my point is that one does not need all this to be an effective poet and to know one’s own poetic memory. One can in effect bypass all of modern scholarship and just affirm the traditions of literature and poetry without the need for the layer after layer of modern critical thinking. I know these thinkers would probably argue otherwise. No doubt! But to tell the truth none of them are poets either.

As Wislawa Szymborska suggests in the poem I used as an epigraph:

I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, then leave again.

She wants all my time and attention.
She’s got no problem when I sleep.
The day’s a different matter, which upsets her.

She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly,
stirs up events both important and un-,
turns my eyes to overlooked views,
peoples them with my dead.

In her stories I’m always younger.
Which is nice, but why always the same story.
Every mirror holds different news for me.

She gets angry when I shrug my shoulders.
And takes revenge by hauling out old errors,
weighty, but easily forgotten.
Looks into my eyes, checks my reaction.
Then comforts me, it could be worse.

She wants me to live only for her and with her.
Ideally in a dark, locked room,
but my plans still feature today’s sun,
clouds in progress, ongoing roads.

At times I get fed up with her.
I suggest a separation. From now to eternity.
Then she smiles at me with pity,
since she knows it would be the end of me too.

Szymborska personifies her memory in the way that Yeats will in many of his poems, yet she does in in a more personal and almost colloquial or conversational mode that at once allays our fears, brings us into the poem as both visitors and voyeurs, or accomplishes along with her against this feisty assailant; her memory. As she tells us her memory want her to “attend her voice nonstop”, and Szymborska becomes at once fidgety, fussy, wanders out and in in such a manner that she’s non-committal to the needs of this inner paramour or voice. Next her memory demands “all my time and attention”. No problem with sleep, she doesn’t bother her with dreams or insomnia (like some of us). But in the day her memory is unbearable and becomes a nuisance,  thrusting “old letters, snapshots at me eagerly, stirs up events both important and un-, turns my eyes to overlooked views, peoples them with my dead”. Like many of us old letters, snapshots, etc. trigger memories both real and fantasy toward both living and past or dead loved ones or even national or global figures that might have affected us in some personal way. All these memories become incessant, crying out for attention just like in Szymborska‘s poem.

Just like our real memory Szymborska‘s takes her back to when she was young, but it’s always the same old memories and places, the same pain, traps, problems, etc. Nothing new. But as she relates of it when looking in a mirror things are different from her incessant memory, “Every mirror holds different news for me”. And, if her memory isn’t attended too right then she get’s angry and upset, especially if Szymborska is less than interested and “shrugs my shoulders”. Her memory will take revenge and pull out all the stops, bring back remembrances of all the old issues, problems, and errors that were made in her younger life. Her memory want nothing more nor less than her solipsistic involvement with this set of unresolved pasts, no matter if they are fantasy or real, and “Ideally in a dark, locked room” cut off from all support from the outside. Szymborska will at times get so upset with this world of memory that she’ll want to just cut it off for good, but as here memory reminds her such an action would entail nothing less that “end of me too”.

So the lesson to be drawn from all this is both the poetic truth of memory as poetry, of our heritage in the internalization of self and identity, social and cultural memory twined with personal memories, etc., and as well that most poetry of our era comic or tragic is confessional in either ironic terms like Szymborska, or in such heroic tragic modes as Yeats once espoused. Memory and poetry need each other, without them we’d be straight away bound to those social forces around us that would rather engulf our small island of individuality and privacy. The Self as a model of humanity has been for a long while now on the defensive. The postmodernist told us it was and illusion, the new neurosciences tell us much the same and also add that our conceptions of intentionality and will are also illusions. The whole tradition of the individual against society spawned either in the Wordsworthian Romantic egotistical sublime, or else in the Emerson/Whitman/Dickenson (anti)transcendentalist mode is up for grabs in our time. So one wonders if memory, too, will suddenly be on the chopping block as either posthuman or transhuman humanity turns the next page of its history. 

I’ll stay put for the moment in my home in poetry and face the fact that the self may be the best fiction we have against those forces that would deign destroy us; such dehumanist or inhumanist movements that have for years been trying their best to do away with humanistic learning and its goals; either through incarnations in robots, or augmented enhancements in superhumans, else the postmodern reaction of post-structuralist thought unweaving the Enlightenment, etc.. Petrarch, the father of lyric poetry for the culture of the West (if we have one left?) began the proverbial pitch for humanism, and out of Dante and Petrarch most of our poetry was born. Then the great humanist Chaucer and his descendent, Shakespeare. I’m with James Joyce that we need an etym-mashing machine to remake language for our whole planet, but this does not entail throwing out the baby with the bath. The legacy of humanism may have been centered on humanity, and it may have made us think a little too much about ourselves and our own issues as compared to the planet and the animals; and, yet, it also had its hooks into just those very things through most of its actual religious heritage which always seems on the blinker with the academic progressive treadmill of castigating everything that is not it.

So what, I’m atheistic, yet I’m not one of those that walks it around on my shoulders, or pins it to my chest like a badge. No. It’s a personal thing, not some kind of new religion in itself. The so called New Atheists seem more like a religious world of proselytizers and mountebank muzzlers waylaying into the planet of morals and religion like these were alien implants. For thousands of years humans have been melded to custom and habit for a good reason: survival on the planet. We seem to think we can overthrow what grew out of natural not unnatural systems of thought and discovery that helped these people survive each other and the world. Do we presume to offer something else? Even Whitman, the greatest advocate we have to a democratic poetry felt we need to include not exclude all custom and habit. I’m with you, Walt Whitman. We have much to learn from tradition, so before we start going of half-cocked thinking we can just kill our past culture: all those Dead White Men off we’d better make sure our memories aren’t connected to that or we might end up like Szymborska‘s pome no longer existing ourselves. I like being just a simple country boy from that memory world of Texas and Louisiana. Think I’ll keep it.  

I’m no longer a die hard Lucretian, who was an atomist and a poet. What I mean is that materialism of the old type of substance based atoms, etc. has been in the past century not only blown out of the water but those scientist who try to fit the knowledge we have to the facts are discovering that there is more immaterial objects in the universe than material. Dark energy and dark matter make up the bulk of our universe, and all the so to speak particles we can measure and see are almost nil compared to these other forces that are both invisible and undetectable with current technologies; all except one: the computer and mathematics, creations of humanistic learning. The models we create to understand the missing information in the universe tells us that it is both a marvelous and fantastic multiverse full of strange objects like black holes, quarks, wandering stars, neutron stars that emit light shows…. our universe is open and a mystery.

Science is just a tool of humans, not some god to be worshipped and put up on a pedestal. It helps us understand ourselves and our place in spacetime. It has nothing to say about what comes before or after except as those same mathematicians wander off the grid and fantasize beginnings and endings. So here we are at the end of the universe holding each others hands peering into the brain through neurosciences and see that yes, we are animals among animals; there is no physical soul substance hiding down there they can find; yet, they can’t stop the surmises, the questionings, the dreaming, the shamans, the voodoists, the people of religion who need a way to dream on the great mythologies of our past no matter what faith. The human heart needs things science cannot give it.

That’s where the thin red line of poetry comes in….

Note to Self: This started out as just a thought of the day… hmm…. more like an encyclopedia… ok, next time I promise to make it a little shorter 🙂 

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