Of Poetry & Memory

Geoffrey Heptonstall


Desperately we try to find a hold

too young, sometimes, for what is very old.

        [from Don Paterson’s Orpheus, a version of Rilke.]

My approach to considerations of memory is primarily cultural, beginning with an observation by Rodin: ‘It is the artist who tells the truth, and the photographer who lies. For in reality time does not stand still.’ In memory, however, time does stand still. Or, rather, we believe it does. In actuality, memory changes. It shifts according to mood. It develops according to our sense of distance from the thing remembered. We suppose that we recapture and hold in place an exact image of the past. But, of course, the image is subject to change because memory is a process within our imagination.

We could take exception to Rodin’s distinction between art and photography because the artist also seeks to capture the moment. That is not true to the artist’s intentions because the artist does not imply, as photography does, that the moment is frozen. The dancers to the music of time are in motion. What we see in Poussin’s picture is movement. What we see in Hockney’s A Big Splash is movement. But it is movement that is not moving. It is frozen motion, a contradiction in terms, an impossibility realized because what is depicted is not static at all. It makes no sense if we do not recognize the activity and the possibilities that may arise therein. A photograph, by contrast, preserves that single instant. It is eternity.

Early photographs take on an other-worldliness. Once events are out of living memory the photograph is unreal, a spectral presence. Rebecca Solnit has observed how photography and spiritualism emerged more or less simultaneously, and that this was not wholly coincidental. The desire to capture time, of speaking to the future, corresponds to the desire of spiritualism: speaking to the past.

Within living memory is a phrase so familiar we ignore its meaning. How can it be said that memory does not live? If it is forgotten, it is not memory. Of course by ‘living memory’ we are referring to the recent past, to events where there remain witnesses. The more accurate phrase would be cumbersome. We know what we mean by living memory. The idea of living memory works by a contrary process. On the one hand the event is long past. On the other hand it is within the experience of people alive whom we can approach, or whom we may know.

All memory is a witness. It is a witness to time’s haunting music, past and future. Mnemosyne gave birth to the Muses. Memory is a source of inspiration. To be inspired is to breathe air that is divine, other-worldly. Memory is an awareness of another life, a higher possibility - but not as a distant object, and certainly not as mere fancy. It is a possibility to be realized here and now. Memory enables us to be more than ourselves, and to speak a language with a life beyond the world of facts and tasks.

Peter Brook observed that behind A Midsummer Night's Dream is another play. It was Brook’s task to discover that play. It is a dream, and therefore in need of interpretation. Dreams in our rational world may unlock the secrets of our minds. Dreams in the ancient world unlocked the secrets of life. As late as 1804 The Universal Dream Book, published in Baltimore, said, ‘Dreams are a figure or condition of souls after death.’ The otherness Peter Brook sought is not of this world. Discovering that otherness is the quest of all creative work. There is a sense of what is lost. There is a connection between memory and death. Remembrance is respect paid to the dead. But remembering is both a way of continuing life and of contemplating eternity.

The sense of loss haunts the Western mind. Paradise Lost is an obvious example. The pioneers of modern America were exploring what was for them undiscovered territory. At the same time, from the Mayflower pilgrims onward, there was a conscious and declared mission to recapture a lost homeland. Identification with the Biblical tribes of Israel was strong. They were seeking Jerusalem as surely as Judah Ha-Levi in Moorish Spain was lamenting the loss of Jerusalem:

For you my soul yearns from the lands of the West,

My pity collects and is roused when I remember the past

[David Goldstein’s translation of Jerusalem.]

A poem by W.H. Auden, The Old Man’s Road, speaks of a secret pathway that leads through the open countryside. Where does the track lead but to some imagined and longed-for place that is never found. The quest for the remembered homeland is sufficient purpose in itself. The journey is a creative enterprise stirring the spirit to identify what is worthwhile, and to discover what more is possible. Ordinary living, by contrast, seems a waste of time:

No life can know it, but no life

That sticks to this course can be made captive

The culture of the bohemian artist emerged as a protest against the mechanization of life, the conformity of a society regulated by industrial processes. The elimination of personal habits and desires and the moulding of social life into a uniform mass are the aims of a machine culture. Rather than the small, appreciative audience in the intimate space, there is the ecstatic crowd. In place of subtle modulations there is rhythmic incantation. In place of contemplation and creativity we have the time and motion study.

Time for an artist is not a mechanical process. It is a resource, linked to memory, that creativity must draw upon. It is an everyday observation that clocks have characters. They can seem to be more than machines. Clocks, it can seem, want to speak to us, as in the Roger McGough sketch where he has a conversation with the speaking clock. At a profound level we have Proust, of course.

One cannot do justice to Proust in a few words. There is one who came close, however. Concerning her reconstructions of Proust, Pamela Hansford-Johnson wrote thus: ‘My intention was to show that Proust’s people had been so completely regained from Time that they could continue to exist in any time.’

We speak of a classic work as being timeless. We mean, of course, work of more than localised, contemporary interest. Poetry derives its meaning from an awareness of time. It speaks of the past. It speaks to the future. The moment a line is written or spoken its time has passed in the relentless pace of time. Without a memory of that moment the words make no sense.

In Hades dead souls drank the waters of Lethe in order to forget their past lives when reincarnated. Oblivion is a living death. Initiates in the Orphic Mysteries drank from the pool of Mnemosyne. The acts of writing and reading are forms of reliving. We draw upon our experiences when we write. We bring something of our experience into our reception of a creative work. We filter the words through our archive of personal memory.

It is a re-creation. Of course memory is a re-creation. The past is reconstructed, which means it is not perfectly recalled. We may censor, perhaps unconsciously, a painful or embarrassing element. We may give undue emphasis to something that pleases us. Incidental or marginal elements may take on greater significance than seemed likely at the time. We believe we can trust memory. We entrust memory with our perceptions.

But we are cautioned not to look back. There are reasons why nostalgia or regret are forbidden. History has made us. We take our place in a tradition. But in creativity it is the future we are anticipating. Francoise Gilot, who is a poet as well as a painter, has spoken quite seriously of feeling ahead of her time, of being able to live, creatively, in the future and to depict in symbolic terms that visionary sense.

To imagine is to create an image. It is to do more than merely suppose. It is a creative response. ‘To admire on principle,’ said Coleridge, ‘is the only way to imitate without loss of originality.’ To admire is to regard in wonder. The element of mystery is present, somewhere at work, in admiration. Without the presence of mystery there is no imagination and no creativity. We create to ‘imitate’, that is, to re-create. Nothing is made from nothing. A poem reflects other poems. Allusions, sometimes unconsciously, are woven into a poem that is clearly original. The originality is not sui generis. Originality in creative work reflects the personality of the creative artist. The artist is at work in a human community. Although solitude may be the artist’s condition of work, the creative impulse is an act of communication.

The desire to publish (or perform or display) is natural. It is as part of a human community that creativity derives its purpose. The purpose of art is to speak to others of our perceptions. The language is highly personal, but the meanings are identifiable. Their power is sourced in the memorability of the words expressed. Memorable words live beyond the circumstance of their expression. Memorable words live in the future. Behind A Midsummer Night’s Dream is something remembered and something projected. It is a dream where desire takes charge. Desire is a longing for what is lost and what may be found.

A work of art (I include all arts in this) that can be understood only in context is not speaking to the future. It is not speaking to anything beyond itself. It is not art but nonsense, a self-referencing gesture. It asks nothing of life. Thoughtfulness is one of the Classical meanings of memory. Taking care, being mindful are sensitive qualities that gave rise to memory’s Early English meaning as awareness.

It is more than a matter of recollecting experiences. Memory makes sense of those experiences. An essay I wrote on the idea of civilisation was illustrated, without my knowledge, with a reproduction of a cave painting. It was a surprising choice of illustration, but it was a choice I saw at once to be exactly right. We do not think of pre-history as civilised. As far as we can ascertain, there were no formal structures of civil society. But there was an understanding of life, the evidence for which are those cave paintings in their striking and vivid beauty.

This cannot have been accidental, although it may have been incidental to whatever purpose the paintings had. The representation of a thing, the act of visual memory, combined with an aesthetic appreciation is a sign of a civilised mind. Hunters seem to have recorded impressions of their prey. Or they were warding off threatening beasts. Or they were seeking to capture the spirit of the intended quarry. Whatever their intentions, the cave painters were speaking to others, perhaps as a way of marking territory. And they took pleasure in the form they chose.

Memory is aware both of history and of the future. If we are fully conscious as human beings we do not live for the moment alone. We acknowledge our place in the continuum of life. This indicates that we see a purpose in being alive. Life is worth celebrating. The celebration must please the senses in harmonious patterns and melodies, in subtle colours and tones. In this there is a necessary sense of admiration. It goes beyond appreciation and into wonder.

In a state of wonder we move from reason into mystery. The task for us now is to reconcile the two hemispheres. It is the task all creative artists must consider. Poetry is the language of the reconciliation of imagination to reality. Let us go back a moment to Rebecca Solnit’s observation of the coincident development of photography and spiritualism. We have noted how spectral a photograph may look. Tribes that fear a photograph captures the soul have a point. A photograph captures a moment. It isolates that millisecond of time from the relentless forward process of experience. Something is imprisoned, and yet it is liberated. Things that are gone retain their presence. We call such presence memory. It is alive and it is spectral.

What is a ghost? Aquinas suggested it may be particles of the person left behind after death. This medieval scholastic mind was venturing into the future of a science that took centuries to affirm his surmise as credible if not yet proven. If there is a rational explanation for ghosts there may be an aesthesis of material truths re-created. Reason and mystery seek a common understanding in poetry. Poets regain from time not the eternal but the possible. To repeat: it is a possibility to be realized here and now.

There remains, however, the paradox of memory: what we suppose does not change, but our remembrance of things is subject to change as we grow more distant in time from what is remembered. Remembrance has a suggestion not of exact recollection but of interpretations. These are not undeniable truths. They are emotions subject to the revisions emotions must allow. We do not feel the same about things all our lives. We negotiate with the past. What we remember we recall differently according to occasion and mood. Memory is arbitrary. The word inscribed on the page is unarguably there. Of course words are open to interpretation.

And language changes. To amuse is to divert or beguile. But it also carries the sense of deluding, a sense which can mean to deceive and to cheat. This is a distortion of its original meaning of wondering, of dreaming (in the pejorative sense of daydreaming). This is closer to its roots as an aspect of the Muses. Poets are dreamers. If language is a deception it is deception to a purpose. We negotiate with the past. That negotiation we name as memory. We name it also as poetry.