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
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
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.
Huntingdon, QC, Canada
Memory House, 1993
Copyright by Carolyn Zonailo: www.carolynzonailo.com,