April 23 Poetry Prompt – Memory

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. – William Faulkner 

According to the ancient Greeks, memory is the mother of all the written, oral and performing arts, whether profane or sacred. From memory, called Mnemosyne, came all the muses. 

Human memory is fascinatingly flawed by nature. Our body of memories is not so much a recording of facts and is not carved in stone but has more of a fluid sense. Time erodes many of our memories but also enhances or embellishes others. Two people describing the same event will not recall that event with an equal eye for detail, timing or even the “facts.” And if you’ve ever argued with someone you love, you know that memory can be very selective. 

It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. – Lewis Carroll 

At its simplest, memory is defined by time – anything that has happened to us in the past is a candidate for memory. Conversely, what we do about the future is projection or planning, and uses different parts of the brain. Curiously, imagination plays a role in both remembering and future-casting. Even more interesting is that we can actually convince ourselves that something happened that did not, and our minds sometimes will store these imaginings as actual memories. Not to mention déjà vu, that eerie feeling that we are reliving an exact moment but cannot place it anywhere in memory, only in our senses.

How we remember things also changes as we age. Our earliest learnings are made into memory by the amygdala, that part of the brain that associates events with emotions, which explains why our most vivid early memories are so often tied to intense feelings of fear, pleasure or panic. We may gradually lose our memory as we get older, or lose things suddenly through trauma or selectiveness. (On selectiveness: I nearly wrote today’s prompt about archetypes – again. On trying to puzzle out why I’d forgotten an essay I wrote just four days ago, I realized my dissatisfaction with that particular prompt and a strong desire to write a better one.) 


What we remember also depends on what’s relevant to us. This aspect of memory is particularly important to both our personal mythology (where we build stories around the things that have happened to us, however we choose or need to remember them) and to our poetry (because what is prose to us today becomes tomorrow’s poem). It’s also relevant that memory tends to write and edit itself as you’re narrating and creating. What you keep is selected and secured against forgetting by some deeper scheme of priorities. But why do you choose to record some details and omit others? Why do you enshrine certain moments in your mind, in your poem? What happens when you start to pay attention to your own process of memory, to observe your mind as you write? 

Writing is made in a state of remembering, and memory often conspires with metaphor, imagination and time to make its own interpretation, a personal myth perhaps more lovely or more terrible than the original. But without this ensoulment of events, they slip away from us and there is no poetry.

A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen. – Edward de Bono 

Not just when we’re writing but most of our lives are lived in memory, except for the elusive current moment that passes us so constantly and quickly we usually neglect to notice it. If memory diffuses the actual experiences we have, then it is no wonder we are constantly telling stories to keep things vivid in our minds.

Memory becomes a kind of middle ground, then, where we meet and converse with what we have seen and done and lived. It’s a halfway area where we decide how and what in our lives will be told. 


Something has probably stirred in you already, but here are a few starter questions for today’s poem.

* What are your most vivid early memories?

* Write about something you remember in a radically different way than someone else who was also there.

* What do you wish you could remember, or forget?

* What have you been careless about remembering?

* Do any of your memories have you?

* Choose three memories that you think have nothing to do with each other, and write a poem in three “snapshots.” What interconnects between them may surprise you.

* What scents trigger powerful memories and associations?

* Referring to de Bono’s quote above, what things keep happening to you? What has never completely “unhappened?”

* To remember something is to literally put it back together. Explore a hazy or difficult memory or a half-forgotten dream that haunts you. What can you piece together using just images? 

For extra credit, research the pantoum poetry form and use its repetition and circular action to formalize or build upon a memory that wants to stay with you. I made an Excel spreadsheet that helped me put my first pantoum together and will happily share it if anyone’s interested in trying this form. Email me if so. 

Also, how is your poetry memorization coming? There’s a week left, plenty of time!

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3 Responses to April 23 Poetry Prompt – Memory

  1. wonderful post. it instructs and inspires with equal measure.

  2. I’m learning so much this month reading your posts, and about myself through writing.
    Thank you!


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