On Poetic Memory by James Meetze
Joe Brainard’s famous book-length poem, “I Remember,” is perhaps the best litany of memories I know of in English verse. He remembered seemingly everything. I remember a lot too, but that’s not exactly why I’m writing this. I’m writing about poetry and memory because I am a poet and my octogenarian father suffers from dementia—a progressive degradation or erasure of the memory and cognitive functions of the brain.
I’m also doing so because poetry contains history, which is a form of memory.
One could assert the existence of a “poetic memory” in that the poetic tradition has for better or worse, pervaded our consciousness. It has taught us that “good fences make good neighbors,” admonished us to “find ecstasy in life,” and proclaimed, “I contain multitudes.”
Frost, Dickinson, and Whitman all built within their poems their own mythologies and maybe that’s part and parcel of why I—and we—still write poems today. Not because we remember things and events, but because we want to remember those moments of transcendence, and of course we want to be remembered for them. That’s the grand idea. But when I revisit Joe Brainard, I remember that it’s not the moments of transcendence, but those pedestrian events we all experience because we need to experience them in order to become real people, living real lives.
I’m writing about poetry and memory because both affect my real life. I live with them. I answer my father’s same questions over and over again and then I put those questions into a poem. I answer them honestly in that poem and my answer does not cause confusion or elicit another repetitive string of questions. Rather, it creates new possibilities for asking the same question and suggests a multitude of answers. In the poem, I’m writing my father’s mythology—his real, remembered life—and inevitably my own, so that it won’t degrade, and it won’t be forgotten. I mean, ask yourself, isn’t every life worthy of being made myth?
James Meetze’s book Dayglo was selected by Terrance Hayes as winner of the 2010 Sawtooth Poetry Prize and published by Ahsahta Press. He is also the author of I Have Designed This For You (2007), and editor, with Simon Pettet, of Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems by James Schuyler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010). The recipient of the 2001 Poet Laureate Award from the University of California, he has taught poetry and creative writing at the University of California, San Diego, California State University, San Marcos, and in the MFA Program at National University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and son.
He’s teaching this upcoming Memoir Poetics class at San Diego Writers, Ink.