The Poetry of Forgetting

The memorability of a poem often has to do more with the unique patterns it presents in sound than with its ideation, theme, or imagery in the mind, but those things matter greatly, too. The last line of the complex Hart Crane poem, “At Melville’s Tomb,” “This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps,” remains in the mind because of the paired “a,” “o,” and “e” sounds (fabulous / shadow; shadow / only; and sea / keeps), while the rest of the poem drifts solemnly, and self-importantly, away.

The more a poem can be sung, the more it rhymes, and the better it can be remembered:

Three blind mice! See how they run!
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a thing in your life
As three blind mice?

The story of the rhyme is nonsensical, leading to the suspicion that its referent is hidden, and, indeed, Wikipedia informs us:

"Attempts to read historical significance into the words have led to the speculation that this musical round was written earlier and refers to Queen Mary I of England blinding and executing three Protestant bishops, but problematically the Oxford martyrs, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, were burned at the stake, not blinded. The earliest lyrics do not talk about directly killing the three blind mice and are dated long after Queen Mary died."

A poem is also more memorable if it offers, or seems to offer, moral instruction. “Baa, baa, black sheep” may teach that there is no reward for little boys who cry in the lane, but online research suggests it may have concerned England’s competition in the wool trade with the cities of Bruges and Lille. “Sulky Sue” (“Here’s Sulky Sue, / What shall we do? / Turn her face to the wall / Till she comes to” is ready-made for harsh parents as they lead sulking little girls to a “time out” in the corner. We remember the poem because it frightens or amuses us as moral instruction. Perhaps we remember it because something cuts deeply, as image, urgency, or simply as an absurdity: Emily Dickinson’s strange line about “Doom’s electric Moccasin,” Eliot’s evening lying peacefully “like a patient etherized upon a table,” or Plath’s “I eat men like air.” Memorability has wonderful resources in nonsense and the irrational.

Some poetics, like language poetry, are suspicious of epigrammatic wisdom, finished statements, and the beauty and memorability of the coherent. One processual moment at a time, it is proudly a poetry of forgetting. In language poetry, for instance, coherence lies in the jostling passage of many strands of meaning. Writing from middle to middle rather than beginning to end, it opposes lyric wisdom on the moral grounds that it collaborates with dominant social powers. With its traditional and devotional use of symbols, like the rose, the cross, the rock, gyre, and the river, lyric poetry has ready access to iconic memorability: “Hearts with one purpose alone / Through summer and winter seem / enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream” (Yeats, “Easter 1916”). Memorability is also “The falcon cannot hear the falconer”; “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by”; Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”; and Stevie Smith’s “The pike is a fish who always has his prey / And this is pretty.” Tell us in satisfying figures what fate is likely to do, and your poem will be memorable and true.

The poetry of forgetting seeks a paradise of the present moment, passing always into the new. The poetry of memorability seeks return and closure. In poetry, it’s difficult not to fall into a memorable rhythm, as the language poet Ron Silliman does in the beginning paragraphs of “Tjanting,” with its repetition of words like “again,” “begin,” and “pen,” and Lyn Hejinian does structurally in “My Life,” using 37 sentences per section and lifting phrases from one poem for the title of another. She also modulates images and memories of her life, albeit in mosaic rather than traditionally narrative fashion. The resulting photographic flashes are the very model of memorability, beyond the language in which they are presented. The tactic of both the Silliman and Hejinian works is similar to that of Impressionism, which favors the smudge, the fragment, oblique & indirect statements, and the point rather than the line. If you find works employing the “new sentence” slippery and hard to remember, try reading them again. Their pleasures come forward each time they’re enacted, in the moment of performance. Hejinian writes in Slowly, “We wait to resemble eventually what we know to be transient.” (26) I understand this to be a postmodern statement of fate. It is saying: we resemble change because change is real, even in us. As we approach death, we begin to resemble it. Suddenly there’s little dissemblance.

Memorability can also come with a single fresh insight, or image, like the Hölderlin line from his great fragment, “Kolomb”: “As when a bell one rings is put out of tune by snow.” Or Auden’s line, in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” about dogs going on with their doggy lives, while “the torturer’s horse / Scratches his innocent behind on a tree.” It’s the memorable line that gets us in trouble when we quote it back to the poet after his or her reading. We didn’t remember it quite right. I used to love to recite Berryman’s Dream Song 14: “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. / After all, sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn, / and moreover my mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you ‘re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources.” I always got it a little wrong. The memorability of a poem has little to do with its actual recital; it’s about the delight and profundity, generally, of one particular passage.
Good organization and parallel structure alone do not make a poem memorable. Laura Riding’s “The Map of Places” is succinct, allusive, mysterious, but its wonders lie in syntax and puzzlement, not in figure-ground relations:

The map of places passes.
The reality of paper tears.
Land and water where they are
Are only where they were
When words read here and here
Before ships happened there.

Riding’s language is simple enough, but the fable of the poem’s persuasion requires the working out of a complex syllogism, the pleasure of which is its overwriting of itself. It gets too confusing. Memorability prefers its serpent, its Eve, and its Eden.

Poetry of forgetting can be found among mystics, like the later Paul Celan or the Russian poet Gennady Aygi, who launch so far inward that we arrive at the purity of being itself. Here is Aygi’s “Shudder of a Daisy,” from Field – Russia (1982 / 2007):

little cloud! —

would once the moment
of my death thus be shaken —

(what then
shall I choose
more dear)

wind — jewel-like — fleeting! —

as in flight
awakened in me — first of all:

freshness! —

of absence of memory


Aygi explains in an interview that in a “committed” poetry of acts, he “could sense no poetic truth, no ‘real,’ or living truth, in the ways these ‘acts’ were committed” (Aygi 3). He began instead to seek “an ever increasing immersion in a kind of self-preserving unity of what I can best describe as something “undiminishing-abiding” (3). In his refusal of action, he turned to silence, quietness, and a “single sleep-world, which encompassed both sleep and waking” (4). It was, in effect, poetry of spiritual consciousness, of things as they are, not in physical space as much as the entire body, or “unrepeatable temple,” of being. It’s not about the use of memory or going to get a shoeshine and it’s 1959 and you don’t know the friends who will feed you. It’s about the realization of “the shining” of a “single-abiding” that can touch paper (Aygi 11). The poem is a map to that experience. You arrive at the place where freshness is the absence of memory. There is the wind, the daisy, and your angle of illumination.


Aygi, Gennady. Field – Russia. Translated by Peter France. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1982 / 2007.

Hejinian, Lyn. Slowly. Berkeley: Tuumba Press, 2002.