Saturday, May 3, 2008

A couple of thoughts on memorability

Memorability is a term often applied to great works of art to distinguish them, presumably, from the great mass of forgettable ones. For poetry, in particular, it's held by many to be a sine qua non of achievement. But isn't this little better than a banal tautology? Anything that is great must be memorable, no? Presumably so. The question is more: what leads to memorability in a poem? In what does memorability inhere? And is memorability itself a sufficient pre-condition for great poetry?

I've come across a couple of things recently in which the topic of memorable poetry is addressed.

First, in the April issue of the Literary Review of Canada. This isn't a mag I pay much attention to, but I picked up a copy of this one for its first installment of "Canada's Most Memorable Poems," in which past LRC contributors make an argument for a poem of their choice. This first part featured, alphabetically, poems from "Atwood to Lowry, plus Anonymous." Some of the choices are drably predictable (Jane Munro choosing "Death of a Young Son Drowning" by Atwood); some very fine (Stephanie Bolster's choice of Margaret Avison's "Thaw" and Rachel Vigier's nomination of Bishop's "The Moose"--another person with the temerity to think of EB as Canadian!); A.M. Klein's "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" was chosen by both Priscilla Uppal and Jason Guriel (not a bad choice, tho if I had to pick one of AMK's for immortality, it would by "Heirloom", a poem less magisterial, but far more intimate); Susan Musgrave's choice of a short unpublished verse by an anonymous young offender proves again that she thinks biography is more important than artistic achievement when it comes to making yourself hard to forget (or ignore). At least Musgrave reprinted the poem; seems odd to run a feature on unforgettable poems without reprinting the poems themselves, for the benefit of those who don't have the requisite books ready to hand. (Tho I note that the web version of the article has links at least to those poems available on-line.)

There were, no surprise, many poems absent from this A-L list that should be there. Milton Acorn's "I've Tasted My Blood" with its unforgettable closing lines "I've tasted my blood too much / to abide what I was born to." Irving Layton's "For Mao Tse-Tung, a Meditation on Flies and Kings": "Those who dance best, / dance with desire, lifting feet of fire from fire / and weave before they lie down / a red carpet for the sun." (Line breaks are probably off, because this is from memory.) George Johnston's "War on the Periphery" (scroll down to the Nov. 11 entry): "the violent, obedient ones / Guarding my family with guns." These are just three that pop immediately to mind.

Mark Abley makes the valuable point that ""Most memorable" is not a synonym for best," citing the unforgettable awfulness of James McIntyre's "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese," one of my own favourite bad poems. It seems obvious that what makes something, whether it's a poem or a face or an event, memorable is that it's somehow apart from the routine, the average, the mediocre.

But in poetry, memorability is often used, unhelpfully, as a synonym for memorisability. Which brings me to the other piece on poetry's memorability I stumbled upon recently, this interview with David Solway. At some points, Solway does very well to point out that poetic greatness is not the product of technical facility alone, citing Swinburne as an example of an extremely talented poet who fell shy of greatness for want of something important to say. But at other points, he makes the case for poems being great because of how effortlessly he could memorize them.*

This, in my view, is a weak argument. One of the things, besides the rigidity of Victorian verse-writing conventions, that led to the widespread abandonment of, and even hostility towards, rhyming metrical verse, has to be the even more widespread use of such forms in popular music and advertising jingles. Anyone who's got a crappy top 40 song stuck in her skull or found himself involuntarily humming the banal theme of the local tire shop understands the insidious and undesirable memorisability of these "earworms." But not many people would cite this as evidence of artistic excellence.

Before it was ever used as an artistic medium, and before there was written language and ledgers in which to record it, verse was employed as a mnemonic device, to keep catalogues of things in the head. This survives today in such forms as "Thirty days hath November," originally composed by an anonymous versifier in the Middle Ages. Must be a great poem then, eh, to have lived so long in the minds of men and women? Of course not. But the more regular the metre and the more predictable the rhymes, the easier a thing is to remember. Perfectly regular metre and predictable rhymes, however, far more often result in wretched doggerel than in great poetry; very few significant poets have adhered rigidly to the prosodic dogmas that predominated in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The memorability of great poetry is usually far more elusive than the no-brainer retention of jingling rhymes. The mnemonics of metre and rhyme are tools that many skilled poets (and over the course of poetic history, it's safe to say most really great poets) have used to make immortal verse. But a magnificent cathedral ain't the product of strong hammers and sharp saws, necessary tho they may be for the construction. What makes a poem memorably great and not just synaptically gluey has everything to do with the individual genius (both inborn and acquired or reinforced thru reading and thought) of the poet, the moment in spacetime s/he occupies when the poem is conceived and completed--and a whole lot of luck.

*Solway uses John Ashbery as an example of a bad poet, because his poems are impossible to recall (and because, improbably, he has an agenda; kudos to anyone who can pinpoint something so amorphous as the Ashberian agenda...). But champs of Ashbery are fully aware of this bugbear. As Stephen Burt wrote recently in the TLS:

The same anything-goes, anything-could-come-next qualities that make his verse so hard to memorize give the same verse its peculiar mimetic virtues. Our thought includes both remembering and forgetting, both concentration and distraction, and Ashbery’s poems get closer to the moment-by-moment way that our minds work (at least to the way that we now believe they work) than earlier poets have ever come. If we find ourselves holding a firm belief, Ashbery says, it’s not because we have found solid proof: rather, a belief, like a memory, “gets worn into the mind like a crease in a road map that has been folded up the wrong way too many times”. If his poems work as our minds do, can we understand them any better than we understand ourselves? “I don’t understand myself”, Ashbery writes, “only segments / of myself that misunderstand each other.” His readers may feel the same way, even though (perhaps because) his poems tell us over and over how much he wants to reach us: “I need your disapproval, / can’t live without your churlish ways”.

I'm not a big Ashbery fan, but it takes a pretty churlish reader to find nothing wonderful in his work, particularly in a poem like "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," with such an undislodgeable aphorism as "The surface is everything":

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything.

Those last three lines quoted above, in particular, strike me as very hard to forget; a perfectly apt and fluently phrased paradox. But part of what makes them memorable is not the glib easiness of committing them to memory, but the way the paradox forces you to process what's being said, to tussle with it and think about it before you assent to or quarrel with what's being argued.


NigelBeale said...

Thanks for drawing attention to the interview.

re "a magnificent cathedral ain't the product of strong hammers and sharp saws"

When Solway speaks of memorability I think he means more than the "mnemonics of metre and rhyme" that result in jingles.

I think what he is suggesting is that through the use of a variety of tried techniques great poems possess resonance, linguistic viability, metaphor, aphorism, historical echoing sense, musicality and so on, which contribute to memorability.

I think the examination of these concrete attributes gets us further than pointing to the indefinable genius of the poet, space/time context and luck.

re: Ashbury and tussling with paradox: reminds me of what has been said of Shakespeare's ""Functional shifts" the way he uses one part of speech-a noun or an adjective, to serve as another, often a verb, and how this challenges the brain.

Zachariah Wells said...

Hi Nigel,

I acknowledge that Solway sometimes makes this clear, but at others, he clouds his own statements. For instance, he says at least once that he has formed his judgments in the crucible of a lifetime's study and practice. But then at another point in the interview he talks about how a poem grabbed him as a teenager, long before that lifetime of knowledge had been built. So one gets the sense of him using whatever argument is ready-to-hand ("it grabbed me instantly" vs. "I can only apprehend this as intelligently as I do because I'm an expert") to justify his own knee-jerk judgments. Personally, I think both cases are legitimate, but I'm not trying to define greatness in poetry. (Why is David Solway's spontaneous enthusiasm the real McCoy, whilst another's is an error?) Greatness is by definition undefinable and unpigeonholeable, which is why Solway and others inevitably paint themselves into a corner whenever they make attempts to define it.

I agree that it's more useful to talk about the nuts and bolts in relation to the writing of verse, but no summation of parts can ever explain why a poem makes for Great Poetry. It's a mug's game--precisely because luck DOES have a huge amount to do with it--and more than a few critics have made fools of themselves trying to assert the greatness of one less-than-great thing or another based on a formula. Clearly, Solway has no formula, but in insisting on trying to explain why something is great and something else isn't, he must have recourse to such bogus criteria as memorisability. Joyce Kilmer is memorisable. So what?

NigelBeale said...

Hi Zachariah,

In fairness to David, I was the one who insisted that we discuss what constitutes greatness, he I think shares your opinion on this topic.

The reason for this focus was and is that I think, with Matthew Arnold, that comparison stimulates the most interesting kinds of discussion. After the initial blissful wave, analyzing and verbalizing and defending why you think a work of art is great I think constitutes the essential part of appreciation and enjoyment.

'Great' poems, do I think tend to be more memorisable, because of the thought given to technique; but a poem, just by virtue of being memorisable, isn't as you say, worthy of being called great.

This is all mute for me incidentally, given my god awful memorizing skills. I can barely remember my cell phone number.

Zachariah Wells said...

Another way of putting this: the greatness of a given poem inheres in its particular lineaments, so talking about the general aspects of "great poetry" is absurd, contributing only to the establishment of standards. And while standard can mean "having recognized and permanent value" it also connotes "sound and usable but not of top quality."

What makes Browning's "My Last Duchess" memorably great is very different from what makes Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" memorably great. But if you have in mind a set of abstract standards and rules, and judge every poem you encounter in the light of those assumptions, then it's easy to miss the greatness of one or the other--and even mistake it for bad poetry.

Criticism of poetry is almost always at its most compelling when its focus is specific. One of the most salient features of poetry thru the ages is its teflonish resistance of generalization.

I played Orsino in Twelfth Night ten-odd years ago, but damned if I can remember all his speeches, even tho "If music be the food of love" is one of the more famous--and memorable!--of Shakey's set-pieces. I can recall bits and pieces, and I suspect I could retrieve it fairly easily if I tried to memorize it all again. And maybe it'll all come flooding back to me in my demented dotage. The brain is damn near as eccentric as poetry itself. I keep hoping someone like Steven Pinker or Oliver Sacks will write at length on the neurological aspects of reading poetry.