Memory is who we are. It is the story that we tell ourselves about where we come from and how we got to be here now. At the same time, our sense of the past is constantly shifting. We re-interpret it in the re-telling and adapt our past to our present purposes.
My new online course for the Poetry School, The Art of Memory: Poetry of the Past and Present will critically reflect on the role of memory in our own lives and in society more widely, drawing on some of the findings of academic research from a number of disciplines on the topic. In the last thirty years or so, the subject of memory has increasingly become a topic of interest to scholars in the humanities, who observe that our memory is also inherently social, and we will think about how this research can enrich our writing about the past and about how we can approach memory itself as a theme for poetry.
Often, when we remember, we draw on images and ideas that are prevalent in the wider culture, which offers us ways of making sense of the past (even beyond our own lifetimes) and gives us a sense of belonging to a wider whole. Sheenagh Pugh’s poem ‘The Girl Taken By An Eagle’ (from her 2008 collection Long-Haul Travellers) captures the complexities of this relationship between personal memory and the social environment better than any other I know.
Based on the true story of Svanhild Hansen, this poem is written from the point of view of a Norwegian woman who believes that she was kidnapped by an eagle and taken to its eyrie when she was a very small child. Although she does not literally remember what happened to her, the stories that she has been told over the years by her family and the wider community, for whom the story has taken on a talismanic significance, almost make her believe that she can recall the details of the experience. However, when a scientist turns up in the village with the data to prove that no eagle could ever have carried her to the mountain, the possibility arises that she might have climbed there herself. If this were true, of course, the narrator would no longer be
The Girl Who Was Taken By An Eagle,
which I have been all my life,
wishing I could recall it. Now it seems,
after all, I was in the wrong story.
The Girl Who Climbed A Mountain – she sounds
bolder, more fun. Maybe I should have been her,
if I’d have known. If you ever know.
What Pugh’s poem captures so well is that sense in which our memories, even of our own experiences, are moulded by our interactions with others over time, and by the context in which we recall. Even memories from adult life, as psychologists of memory tell us, are shaped by the context in which they are recalled and the influences of the environment. As Pugh’s narrator discovers, however, these influences on our sense of the past also have a profound effect on our identity in the present. This goes not just for individuals, but equally for communities, whose sense of identity and cohesion is founded on their ability to tell stories about the past that everyone can share. National days of commemoration, institutions such as museums or even the stately homes of the National Trust in the UK, as well as films and TV series, all contribute in different ways to telling those stories. Our fascination with genealogy is another symptom of this need to find identity by creating narratives about our past: not for nothing is there a popular TV programme on the subject called Who Do You Think You Are?
But what role does poetry have to play here? Memory certainly looms large in contemporary verse, at least in the autobiographical mode. Many collections of poetry I read are almost family albums, where grandmas and grandads, aunts and uncles are immortalised alongside vignettes about the poet’s childhood experiences. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but this kind of autobiographical writing, which is very much about the poet’s own construction of their sense of self, often seems to me to leave the complexities of the process of remembering aside. Pugh’s poem, cited above, is a fine example of a writer recognising and exploring the fallibility of that process and its consequence for who we think we are.
Investigate how poetry can engage with memory, both individual and collective, on David Clarke’s The Art of Memory: Poetry of the Past and Present a new 10 week online poetry course from the Poetry School. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.