Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 4, 2011

The Nature of Memory

Writing poems from facts that are often shadowy, broken, or have rough edges, makes me think about the nature of memory. I’ve been writing about the ancient world when events and ideas were passed along by song and story, and no one expected exact mirroring of what happened. Listeners seemed to know stories would shift depending on the tellers, and surprise was part of the pleasures.

But since cameras and recording devices were invented, police reports and courtrooms are subject to rigorous standards, it seems that fact as truth has become the standard way to view the world. Do we expect memory to be a science, the same every time for each one of us? Or are we content with some slippage? Are our minds naturally drawn to myth and shape shifting, or is the advance of civilization based on finding consensus? Children are often allowed fantasy, but growing up is often defined as leaving imagination behind or in a special corner.

Memory loves objects like charm bracelets, handed-down teapots, quilts, old dolls or stuffed animals that hold something through time, but also let it change. Memory doesn’t work chronologically. She’s charmed by facts, but not naturally fact-checking. Storytelling and poetry may be closer to memory than journalism, even when we write from history. We’re not just after what happened, but want to draw connections with metaphors, or set up echoes of images as well as sounds, stitch together what first seems disparate. Sometimes we’re trying to blend what happened with what could have happened. Trying to show what was real, as an artist may want to draw a bird that’s anatomically correct, but then letting go to pure whim, moving away from realism just far enough so that a bird on the page can fly.

For today’s Poetry Friday Roundup, please visit Dori Reads



  1. This is a beautiful post. (I’ve always been fascinated by memory – I wrote a paper on it in grad school.) I especially like this: “Listeners seemed to know stories would shift depending on the tellers, and surprise was part of the pleasures.” The engineer in me still likes to get the facts right – one of the reasons I loved math so much is that there was an ANSWER. But how much more calming to just accept inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and in fact, appreciate the depth *and* newness they bring to old stories, giving us a new way of seeing.

  2. This is so interesting, and timely. Lately I’ve been going through my belongings, reclaiming objects that have a strong pull on my memory and heart, and writing about them. I think I’m reacting to that very culture you describe — the culture of camera phones, GPS pinpointing, mapquesting, instant videos. And just yesterday, in my travels around the Internet, I read this (which, miraculously, I was able to find again today):

  3. I’d like to have read your paper! Yes, memory is so complicated, and it’s interesting to see where we can flow with it, and where we sometimes want to fight its strange ways.

  4. I like your project of writing in response to dear objects. And yay for finding the article — thanks for the link!

  5. This is such a thought provoking post. When I was called in for jury duty once, it occurred to me that no matter if two witnesses saw the exact same situation, they would always recount it differently. Each one of us views the world according to our unique perspectives, so the story would be told from that perspective, and wouldn’t it be hard to determine exact facts? Of course, with video, etc., that has changed things at times. But I certainly hope there’s room for slippage where poetry and stories are concerned, otherwise I’d think the world would become a rather rigid place.

  6. memory
    What a wonderful post, Jeannine… about memory, and more generally, about “the past.” As you said, “Memory loves objects like charm bracelets, handed-down teapots, quilts, old dolls or stuffed animals that hold something through time, but also let it change.” I find that old photographs and objects are often a fantastic springboard into the writing process. Thanks for your words today.

  7. I was struck by that connection between storytelling and poetry – both are given a sort of coloration by this human need (I believe)to somehow own an event, to make it ones own, to write it in ones own language. You have given me much to think about, Jeannine!

  8. Objects and Memory
    You might be interested in the documentary film OBJECTS AND MEMORY. You can find out about it at
    – Jon Fein

  9. Yes, the world is not a newspaper report of it. Gosh, we’re not even our blogs or facebook status. Lots of room for sliding and bumbling, and there’s the beauty.

  10. Re: memory
    Thanks, Mary. And Toby’s link above reminds me of Neruda’s Ode to Common Things, suggesting poetry just about everywhere.

  11. Thank you, Tara. You give me plenty to think about, too.

  12. Re: Objects and Memory
    That indeed does look like an amazing project. thank you for letting me know about it.

  13. So many posts this week are tapping into MEMORY/MEMORIES, whether explicitly or personally…

  14. Maybe memory is a Jan/Feb theme?

  15. I think we need the charm bracelets, the patched granny square afghan, the Bible with names inside. These will help us find our way back, our way in…

  16. You’re so right, Jeannine. I’m married to a natural born story-teller. Not officially, of course, but he loves telling stories, he loves changing the facts just enough to enhance the story. He’s a true skald. You know in writing fiction, we are told that just because something is true, doesn’t mean it works as story. The embellishment, the slight changes, the shifts in viewpoint are the things that bring the event into the realm of true “story”, not just a true story.

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