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A Poetics Of Memory
By Carolyn Zonailo

     In a very real way, all memory is "re-inventing" memory, i.e. revising and re-visioning all our past experiences and our life-stories, whether they be "case-histories," literary narratives, or lyric poems. What becomes important via the mode of memory are the ways in which we interpret, work with, and are shaped in the present, by memory, both collective and individual.

     Memory enters into all poetry through psychological perception, imaginative rendering, and universal re-visioning. However, there are two separate and distinctive ways in which memory becomes a poetic: the first is via a narrative, confessional, biographical and therapeutic mode, where the aim is release, relief, catharsis, and an unburdening of the emotions. This prompts a narrative line in which the poet becomes raconteur, or a storyteller giving testimony (often to childhood memories and memories of growing up) as a witness to the events in one's personal life or past.

     The second mode in which memory forms a basis for a poetics is through mythic, lyrical and archetypal perception. The thinking is mythic rather than confessional, the mode is lyrical rather than narrative. The story being told is archetypal not autobiographical per se and the result is epiphany not catharsis, illumination rather than release. Both the confessional/narrative mode and lyrical/mythic mode are valid ways in which memory can enter into poetic expression and form a basis for a poetics.

     In the narrative mode, poets tell the story of their life and memory plays a key part in the piecing together of a poet's individual biography. In the lyrical mode, memory isn't necessarily linked to narrative but enters in through metaphors, particulars, emblematic events and personages. The narrative moves both the poet and reader toward catharsis, release, and re-viewing of the past filled with loss, grief, or trauma. The lyric moves both poet and reader toward epiphany, discovery, luminosity, revelation, and change in perception or expansion of consciousness.

     In my own writing, I am basically a lyric poet, but I have also recently been exploring more narrative modes. I realize that I may never move fully toward a narrative or confessional way of thinking or writing. When memory enters into my work, it is through metaphor more often than through anecdote. Childhood, as subject matter, is less important to me than childhood as a state of perception, a state of consciousness, distinct from the mode of consciousness we experience as adults. In all my writing, I am moving towards that moment of clarity, clairvoyance, perception, rather than towards that moment of released emotion or catharsis. Both ways of thinking poetically and using memory certainly move to liberation from the individual stage and toward the experiencing of a universal dimension in our everyday lives. Thus, memory can be a vehicle for epiphany, just as much as it can be a vehicle for therapy.

     I began writing poems about my childhood for one section of Memory House, entitled "The House of Childhood Dreams." It was then that I realized I had always considered myself a sixties’ child: part of the "baby-boom" generation, whose adolescence and early adulthood were in the mid-nineteen-sixties. I attended university during those turbulent times. However, my childhood was in the nineteen-fifties, that period "smack" in the middle of this twentieth century, after the upheaval of World War II and before the revolutionary events of the sixties. This realization changed how I looked at my childhood and how I perceived the values imparted to me while I was growing up. It involved the re-visioning of my own personal history in the context of social history. For biography, whether viewed through a narrative or a mythic lens, is always a combination of the individual and the historical moment. From that moment of confluence, we then create the perception which moves into personal biography and narrative, or further into mythic and archetypal perception.

     So, when I approach the material of childhood, filtered through the poetics of memory, I am looking for the moment when personal story, historical event, and mythic perception "meld together" into archetypal experience. Hence, my early poems about my Doukhobor ancestors, the matriarchs of my childhood; or my poem about "The Witch's House," in which I explore the child I was in the nineteen-fifties, when I was a girl growing up in the intensely feminine (not feminist) atmosphere of middle-class neighbourhood. My long poem "Journey to the Sibyl," was written in the late nineteen-seventies. My grandmother, even in her casket, appears as an icon, an embodiment of female wisdom and endurance. Memory, personal experience, and the particulars of my own individual life have always entered into my poetry. They bring an element of the archetypal and they are entrances into mythic consciousness and epiphany. In Memory House, my most recent work, I have entered further into the particulars of my own growing-up and used narrative more explicitly. The aim is the same as in my earlier work: to illuminate my own experience in an attempt to shed light on our collective human experience. Such is the function of a poetics based on memory.

  Carolyn Zonailo
Huntingdon, QC, Canada
Memory House, 1993

Copyright by Carolyn Zonailo:, 2004.

Page: 1, 2 | Articles | A Poetics Of Memory
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