Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Memorable poems

I feel simultaneously well-read, and lacking in that department, and it's because I spend so much of my time reading literary journals and so little time reading poetry books. I rarely get to read a full collection. But I have been reading "Don't Let me Be Lonely" by Claudia Rankine and so far (about halfway through) it's one of the best books of poetry I've ever read. I don't even know why I bought it. There was a time where I would buy books on a whim, and this book was born of that.

I'll maybe give it a book review when I'm done, but for now, I want to talk about a blog entry from one of my favorite online purveyors of poetry, Linebreak. In this blog, Carolyn Guinzio notes that "“Memorable” is a quality that may have nothing to do with greatness." And she's right. I have read classics that while impressive upon reading them, I have since wholly forgotten, and banal songs from commercials that will sleep with me in my grave. So what makes a poem memorable? Or better, what makes a poem both great, and memorable (since a sufficiently terrible poem might become memorable in itself)?

It's the sort of question I imagine does more harm to poetry than good, if it is sought after. It's the sort of thing which I imagine musicians are thinking about when they write their next bubblegum hit. But I recognize that this may be some sort of inherent bias I have: that greatness can't be manufactured, it must be organic. And perhaps that isn't true.

It is a frightening thing to imagine that one might go his entire life writing only one or the other type of poem, the great poem which doesn't stick with us, or the memorable so-so poem.

Or can a poem truly be great if it can be forgotten?


  1. I've read books and seen movies I thought were great and then forgot the plot of, but I always remembered something important about the feeling or tone or voice, or specific scenes.

    I've never read a poem I thought was great that wasn't also memorable (to me), which is not to say it's objectively memorable or that I memorized it. Nor to say that I think great art has to last forever; I think it can be fleeting. But if it affects me personally, I remember it.

  2. I think this depends largely on what you consider a great poem, doesn't it? I can't say that I have read poems that affected me emotionally and then gone on to forget them.

    But I have read poems that impressed me and then forgotten them. I'm not ashamed to say that Yeats or Wordsworth wrote a ton of poems which I'd recognize if I were to read them again, and be impressed by, but which don't affect me. And which I'm sure to forget again.

    You are right to point out that a poem can be fleeting and important or enjoyable. It's something I struggle to remember, because a part of me always thinks of all good poetry being immortal. But even what seems immortal is perhaps fleeting in the larger scale of things.

  3. We poets are indeed concerned about greatness, with a capital G.

    What's interesting to me is that great poems don't have to be about war/death/love (but they can be).

    Yes, on the fleeting nature of art (and everything), and the revolving door of the canon of literature.

  4. And yet you would never know that great literature can be about things other than war/death/love if you were to only take the minimum requirements of English in high school or college.

    It's a shame, especially given how little of our day to day lives are intimately and openly devoted to those three things.