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A Poetics Of Memory
By Carolyn Zonailo

     It was in January, 1992, just after I had moved from the West Coast, (where I was born and raised and had lived up until my midlife), to a small town in southwestern Quebec. We were on a Sunday drive when we passed by a country house with a name above the door, something not uncommon in this area. However, the name which I spotted while driving through a very wintry landscape was a startling name: Memory House said the sign in plain black letters. Having just left behind all the houses of my childhood, youth, and first-half of adulthood, the vision of this ordinary, white wooden farmhouse with the highly evocative name of Memory House reverberated in my imagination. I immediately began working on a book of poems entitled Memory House. When I was asked to participate in this panel, "Reinventing Memory", for the Feminist Caucus, it seemed like a perfectly natural synchronistic event, another forum in which to explore the poetics of memory.

     I'd like to quote now from a book by Jungian analyst James Hollis, entitled The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1993), in which he examines the midlife passage from what he calls "first adulthood", into the second half of one's life. Hollis writes:

“Many modern poets have abandoned the notion carried by their literary ancestors, that they can address the zeitgeist as a whole. Rather, they tend to reflect on their personal lives, seeking some sense there, and hoping through the power of the word to touch the lives of others. Such poetry, often called ‘confessional,’ is both intimately personal and universal, in that we share the same human condition.”

     This statement by Hollis seems to me an appropriate one to use as a foundation for the poetics of memory: he sees the use of personal narrative, or personal history, in contemporary poetics as a psychological exploration that holds within it the paradox of being universal, precisely because it is particularized. He goes on to say:

“Much of modern art is testimony to our need to pick through the rubble of the past, choosing here and there a cloak of symbols which still fits, but mostly aimed at exacting meaning from personal experience. If the spiritual well-springs of the past are generally unavailable for the artist today, then he or she will have to draw the longitudes and latitudes of the soul from the shards of biography.”

     These two statements form a basis for a poetics founded on the universality of personal history, wherein narrative or mythic examination of the details of one's own particular experiences becomes appropriate subject matter for the poet. This, then, becomes a poetics in which memory plays an important and significant role.

     In my reflections on memory as part of a poetics, I have come to the realization that all use of memory via personal history in contemporary poetry is psychological, imaginative, and universal. But James Hillman, the foremost psychoanalytic writer of the last twenty years, has pointed out that case histories are fiction. "The facts of one's life are far less important than how we remember them, how we have internalized them and are driven by them, or how we are able to work with them." In Hillman's terms, "memory is a form imagination can borrow in order to make its personified images feel utterly real". (James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1975)

     Thus, when we talk about the use of memory in poetry and try to articulate a poetics of memory, we are talking about the universals of human experience, the particulars of a certain individual's life-story, the complexes of childhood and mythic projection. We are also talking about the role imagination plays not only in our personal lives but how we envision our experiences in the art, literature and poetry we create out of those personal life experiences.

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