Writing is built on memory; it preserves and shapes our memories and lives. In the process of making art, a poet can write from memory. No matter if you're writing poetry, fiction, essay or memoir, the past provides a wealth of material. We use this material in poetry, but as Ted Kooser points out in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, an anecdote does not necessarily make a poem. A poem needs something else. Like Mary Oliver says, poetry is writing that casts more than one shadow. The poem needs to mean more than one thing. It needs to convey the 'is-ness' of things and it needs to employ sound. The poem is the map where the memory is placed.
Reading other poets allows you to study their maps. Each poem is a map of the breath, a map of the encounter. In an introduction to one of his books of poems, Neruda emphasizes the tactile. He aims for: "A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denial and doubts, affirmations and taxes." Studying these other maps will help you make your own with your own body, out of your own vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, loathing and love, encounters, doubts and distractions and obsessions.
Good or bad, we can't escape the past, and neither can we escape the inexorable changes. Every day removes us just as it moves us forward into new experience. Neruda says it well in his poem, "The Past." The ending is excerpted here:
Now the heavy eyelid
covers the light of the eye
and what was once living
now no longer lives;
what we were, we are not.
And with words, although the letters
still have transparency and sound,
they change, and the mouth changes;
the same mouth is now another mouth;
they change, lips, skin, circulation;
another being has occupied our skeleton;
what once was in us now is not.
It has gone, but to the call, we reply;
"I am here," knowing we are not,
that what once was, was and is lost,
is lost in the past, and now will not return.
Pablo Neruda, "The Past"
The past: always crumbling and every moment falling into it. We lose everything, even our selves. Things are not fixed, there is no certainty, only this threshold of constant change.
But it is here that we can stand and work, reaching back to our own material to make and shape new poems, and possibly even new futures. Mona Smith, a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota storyteller and media artist was recently featured in the Minnesota Women's Press. She is working with others making memory maps, an important writing and media project in Minnesota to recover the history of the Dakota tribe. "Know who you are and know where you are," she says.
Her project involves creating a memory map of the bdote area of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers (a bdote is a place where two waters come together) that is central to Dakota spirituality and history. She is collecting the stories from many Dakota people in her quest. In another project, Mnisota Makoce 2062, she aims to bring together dance, recordings, public performance and stories from the tribe's elders to tell what it was like in the region before Europeans arrived, before the mass executions in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862 when 38 Dakota men were hanged, the largest group hanging in the history of the US. For more information about her, see the article http://eedition.womenspress.com/main.asp?sectionid=2&subsectionid=77&pageID=8
I applaud this work and I bring it into the discussion of poetry and the use of the past because I think she offers much wisdom. She is working on truth-telling on a large scale, using many perspectives. Writers always have done important work when they write about the places and people that have been sacred or important. For writers and those making art, I recommend the development of a memory map. The more people participating in a project like this, the better. Knowing who you are and where you are brings clarity and strength.
There was a type of poetry called "confessional" which is the poetry of "I" and usually involved speaking about things that were normally not spoken in polite society. Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton were examples of this type of writing, and they both wrote about painful experience. It was truth telling on a personal level. Anne wrote about her time in a psychiatric ward. Other poets later, like Sharon Olds, continue to write about sexual abuse and physical abuse, breaking taboos by speaking out. I think this is an important wave of artistic work that has helped change the culture. The taboo against speaking has broken and now more people have awareness and understanding.
After awhile, some critics and readers felt that there was too much emphasis was on the "I" and that the confessional had become solipsistic. At this point in time, in the era of Facebook and MySpace, people in our culture are much more comfortable with sharing personal and even private information. It is no longer breaking any taboos at all; the culture's appetite for the personal and private in our lives is not appeased. If anything, it has grown. Consider the reality shows on television. In my work as a poet, and for most poets, the aim is for something deeper.
Mona Smith's project involves the collection of many individual stories in order to portray a community that was oppressed. As such she is able to uncover the roots of oppression, give a broader context to individual experience, revive the culture and help change the lives of people right now. Because she is also recording dance, music, and art, she can access powerful change. She is working on the larger scale of history.
Here I speak of poetry as a map. Change may not be a direct mission of many poets, but truth-telling is valuable. In the threshold that all of us stand upon, between the past and "the next," I encourage poets to write with passion about their histories, their places and landscapes, their dances and songs and feasts, and the people and things who are important. From these things, the poem's rhythm and sound emerges.
The map is about place. A poem is emotional landscape. It is a way of traveling by sound. In this work of making a map, poets need to connect the anecdote or memory to something larger, to cast more than one shadow, to capture that heart-rending edge where things are coming to be and ceasing to be. Therefore the anecdote or the memory in the poem should be juxtaposed with the larger life, the world outside of the individual. The anecdote itself can be a metaphor, a way of describing something else. This connection to the larger expands the poem. Connecting to history expands the poem's range, and connecting to myth or Biblical story accesses deep cultural meanings.
When the mythic or Biblical is invoked, it is not as parable or conveying a lesson. The story becomes a story within a story. It is a way of deepening the poem and making it larger. It's so important to avoid the sentimental and to avoid naming feelings or telling the reader how to feel. The emotional landscape is not traveled by naming the feeling, but by creating images that evoke the emotion. And all this needs to happen without the poet giving up connection to the physical body and the tactile.
Poets who use memories aren't just writing memoir. We make the map as a way to access the spirit or breath, in the spirit-to-spirit exchange between poet and reader, the I and thou. In this context, the map is made of the personal scratches or marks, it should be physical or tactile, as Neruda says. It offers a rhythm. In order for a poem to move us, the map must reveal the emotional landscape and terrain of the sacred. If the poem is a map of the writer's encounter with "the larger", if a poem is able to find the way into something that can not be said, then the reader can follow in the same sound and rhythm and find the point of connection. It is this aha! -- this encounter -- that the reader of a poem enjoys.
Moments of Being
Virginia Woolf described the luminous moments of life, the memorable experiences, the things that mark us forever as "moments of being." These moments of beings are the heart of who we are or who we have become. The following examples are ways that poets take a moment of being and make a poem from it:
The poet Eleanor Ross Taylor writes about the travel bag that her mother packed for her:
Some days now I wonder if I’ll ever
dare face my given garments—
surely out of date—
wasting in its tissue, flesh-corrupt—
till I’ve absorbed it,
like those stitches that dissolve
in an incision
where something’s been removed.
Eleanor Ross Taylor "At the Altar"
This poem by James Galvin, takes a seeming innocuous memory of being in an art class. He enters the drawing itself:
Let us begin with a simple line, Drawn as a child would draw it, To indicate the horizon,
James Galvin "Art Class"
In this poem, Sharon Olds captures the moment her abusive parents were courting, in that moment of possibility before all the mistakes were made:
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do thingsyou cannot imagine you would ever do,
Sharon Olds "I Go Back to May 1937"
In the next poem, Natasha Tretheway takes a story about fishing with an aunt to illuminate her bi-racial identity and the history of racism:
Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
History and Poetry: Letters, Photographs, Journals
The following poems use events in history in a way that is personal and arresting. The form of the resume or curriculum vitae is used by Lisel Mueller to tell:
1) I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea. 2) In the year of my birth, money was shredded into confetti. A loaf of bread cost a million marks. Of course I do not remember this. 3) Parents and grandparents hovered around me. The world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws. 4) A cornucopia filled with treats took me into a building with bells. A wide-bosomed teacher took me in. 5) At home the bookshelves connected heaven and earth. 6) On Sundays the city child waded through pinecones and primrose marshes, a short train ride away. 7) My country was struck by history more deadly than earthquakes or hurricanes. 8) My father was busy eluding the monsters. My mother told me the walls had ears. I learned the burden of secrets....
to read the full text, see
This next poem by NatashaTretheway is structured as a letter written by a mulatto woman in the south who is "passing" as white but has not been able to find work:
though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite what I pretend to be. I walk these streets a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, a negress again. There are enough things here to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall
Natasha Tretheway "Letter Home"
The poet in this example offers a photographic image. She structures her poem as a villanelle on that single moment in time, in 1900. The repetition of lines in the villanelle seems to help evoke the scene of five young girls, scolding and shifting as their photograph is taken:
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch, are bickering. The eldest has come home with new truths she can hardly wait to teach. She lectures them: the younger daughters search the sky, elbow each others' ribs, and groan. Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch and blue-sprigged dresses, like a stand of birch saplings whose leaves are going yellow-brown with new truths. They can hardly wait to teach,
Marilyn Nelson "Daughters, 1900"
The poet in the following example writes a narrative about war. She has a specific time and place, a day of departure in a specific geographic location. Her offhand tone contrasts with the horror for the individuals in the story, it emphasizes how common this scene is, how it happens all the time. Her tone is ironic, biting, and reminds the reader about how much we tend to blame others and ignore our own complicity.
Some people fleeing some other people. In some country under the sun and some clouds. They leave behind some of their everything, sown fields, some chickens, dogs, mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected. On their backs are pitchers and bundles, the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next.
Wislawa Szymborska "Some People"
Poems connecting with myth or Biblical stories
In the following poems, the intensely personal story has found a connection to Biblical or mythical stories. It like placing the small within a larger cultural map. The personal voice is immediate and riveting; that these stories are embedded in the larger myth or Biblical story lends them much more power. The poem itself is just a moment in time, but the reader understands the entire arc, the story from beginning to inevitable end.
Jean Valentine, "Annunciation"
Maureen Gibbon "Magdalena Remembering"
Rita Dove "Persephone, Falling"
Alicia Suskin Ostriker "Demeter to Persephone"