The Poetic Memory II

By Stu Whitley


This  is the second post in a four-part series.

Poetry is sometimes the casualty of an age where rational clarity is
considered supreme. If the message of the poet is not apparent at the
first go, chuck the damn thing. This, of course, ignores the obvious
reality that to try and capture all that reposes within our innermost
thoughts on a particular matter may not be easily condensed and
dispensed as received wisdom. I think our ability to speak clearly on
important things is seriously exaggerated. Kant observed that there’s
no great art in being generally comprehensible if one renounces
insight. He thought that the result was a bunch of patched up
observations and half-reasoned principles, which he considered to be
the enjoyment of “shallowpates” in “everyday chitchat”. Jacques
Maritain wrote in Creative Intuition in Art & Poetry:

The law of intelligible clarity imposed by the classical tradition has…been an occasion for innumerable mediocre poems…

If this is true of poetry, which is the most economical form of condensing expressed thought, it is even truer of memory.

don’t know much about the magic of memory. We know even less about its
physiology. Our brains endlessly trawl our experiences and randomly
snatch up words and images by some sort of neurological sleight of
hand, tucking them in the sleeve for future reference. How those
memories become inscribed in the molecular structure of our minds is
not remotely understood. Even more delicious is the fact that, though
the atoms that initially contain the information may atrophy and
disappear, nevertheless the memories themselves may yet survive. The
engram (or the way in which the brain actually changes as the result of
incorporating an experience into its data banks) is supposedly the font
of memory, and it seems obvious that our survival as a species, as with
any other creature, has hinged upon the ability to remember an
experience, learn from it, and recall the lesson as it is needed.
However, the unconscious selective process that sorts and files and
discards by turn, remains a mystery.

What we do know about the
biology of memory is that we remember the beginning. Not just our
beginning, but the beginning. It now appears clear that some of our
most primal instincts are coded at the genetic level. In experiments
with newly hatching goslings, if a horizontal crucifix-shaped shadow
was projected on the ceiling above them, with the longer shaft of the
shape gliding to one side, they remained in the nest. The same form
with the shorter length of the shaft moving forward made the hatchlings
scatter immediately. How could they possibly know that the simulated
hawk’s shadow was a potential threat and the goose image not, having
just emerged from the egg? Only if that information had been
pre-programmed as a memory into their genes. Without that advantage,
the hawk’s belly would be full only for a time, until there were no
more goslings.

Perhaps this is what Darwin meant when he said,
“There is grandeur in this view of life”, when he was recording how
finches adapt to their environment by incorporating adaptive changes
into their biology. Imagine: your memory is my memory, which is our
collective memory since before the time of the first aboriginal. This
elemental fact lies beyond wonder.

© 2007 Stuart James Whitley. All rights reserved.