Storage is always a problem

(These are plums, not peaches, but certainly juicier than a hatrack)

For the human mind, the issue of memory is actually not just storage, but retrieval as well.

I’ve been wrestling with both storage and retrieval in the Known by Heart project. It sounded like a great idea at the time, create a bunch of poems designed to be memorized and present them from the heart. But as the day draws closer, I’m reminded of a few things about myself. Really, just one thing: How, as a middle-aged person with a fast-shrinking brain, am I supposed to get all this work stuffed in my head?

I started this project with some ideas about what makes poetry memorable. Memorizing the E.E. CUMMINGS, “as freedom is a breakfast food” (I think it’s officially known as 25 in his collection 50 Poems) I noticed how pattern and image make things memorable. For example, it’s hard to forget “as hatracks into peachtrees grow/or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair.” By contrast, I found more abstract lines in the poem, “as the impure think all things pure” hard to make stick in memory.

Pattern is another tool I noticed as I started memorizing other poet’s work. E.E. CUMMINGS’s “as freedom is a breakfast food” relies not only on image. It uses iambic lines, (lubdub, lubdub a pattern as familiar as a heartbeat). There’s also pattern in a repeated line revolving through the stanzas of the poem.

So these tools: image and pattern have helped. But I’ve been learning new tools as well that play on other aspects of how we remember. More on that soon.

Memory as revision

As I mentioned in my last post, I started this project with a few ideas about how to make poems memorable and easier to memorize. But in my work with theater coach Zaraawar Mistry* of Dreamland Arts I keep learning new things about poetry and memory

As a cognitive phenomenon, neuroscientists tell us that memory is a process of revision, that each time we access a memory, we change it. Memory of events is highly fallible, malleable and untrustworthy. One of my favorite examples of this is a friend, in her sixties, telling me that she and her siblings had recently each drawn a plan of their childhood home. They drew different sketches—not just details of where the door was, but rooms in different places.

So, memory as revision, that should come as no surprise. But it’s been a surprise and delight to realize how the work of putting a poem into memory can be an excellent revision tool for a writer.  Something about this memory work reveals, with great clarity, a great deal about a poem.  Those words that seemed so perfect on the page suddenly lose their shine. But it’s not just that extraneous words and phrases don’t seem worth the work of remembering them.  Sometimes the memory work offers clarity about the whole poem—the flow and movement of the thing become clear. At leat that’s how it seems to me. I hope you’ll be able to come judge for yourself on May 9.

 *PS: Go see Mistry’s one-man show, The Other Mr. Gandhi, if you possibly can. It’s amazing, it’s at Dreamland Arts, and he’s added some performances in April. that’s all I’ll say about it.

It’s a date…but what’s that rooster got to do with it?

Mark your calendar, the Known by Heart poetry event will take place May 9, 2012, 7 pm, at the Hamline Midway library, 1558 W. Minnehaha Ave., St. Paul. (Thanks to the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library).

 I’ll be presenting new and old work committed to memory and joined by poets John Minczeski and Andrea Jenkins. I’m excited and honored to have them join me in this poetry and memory experiment.

 And the rooster? The rooster was a visitor on my porch one day during my stay at the Studios of Key West last November, where I got started on some of the poems I’ll be presenting from memory in May. That rooster is both the subject and a mnemonic device for one of the poems.

 The event is being sponsored by Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and made possible by a 2011 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board (Here’s the official language on that:

Naomi Cohn  is a fiscal year 2011 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. )

 Hope you can be there