Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Poetry and Forgetfulness

In the loft are many boxes of books - packed away, unpacked, re-packed and forever vying with the thousand books spread around the house for precious shelf space.  One such box contains my poetry books, though not "Mount Helicon"  (undated circa 1920s) or "Lyrical Forms in English" (1911) by Norman Hepple.  From these my mother, when a child, learned poem after poem, retaining her ability to recite them into her nineties.  And from them, a generation later, I too imbibed some of these 'best words in the best order' .

Coleridge spoke those words on the night 
of July 12, 1827  during a wide-ranging 
conversation about a number of famous writers. 

"Mount Helicon" and "Lyrical Forms in English" have their own treasured two and half inches of shelf in the study.  Sadly, my ability to recite most of the poems I learned has not survived into my sixties though a few still linger somewhere in the background.

My attempts to find the poetry book box have proved fruitless during my last few trips into the head-banging, sometimes crawling, Stygian gloom of life above the ladder.   Feeling starved of poetry I turned to the local charity shops and Wirral Hospice yielded up "Poem for the Day Two".  Its predecessor, simply entitled "Poem for the Day" is somewhere in that elusive box.

I have been reading through this new leap year of verse but have not attempted to memorise any of them for reasons which will become apparent.

I came across "Forgetfulness"  on the page for March 22nd, the day on which its author, Billy Collins, was born in 1941 (1938 according to the book, which is wrong).  Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the USA from 2001 to 2003.

When you reach 67 years of age the appeal of this poem is instant.  Especially having just got from the library a novel you had 'never heard of' but which your 'Books Read' list says you enjoyed just three years ago and which, once opened, gets more and more familiar (though whodunnit still escapes you!)

This is "Forgetfulness"...

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of.

It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the Nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack ts bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book of war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful poem.

  2. This was written for me. The number of times each day I recite the alphabet to help me remember the name of something/someone is legion.

  3. I had to send this to a close friend who remembers EVERYTHING to explain why my end of the conversation has so many gaps.

  4. Billy Collins and I share birthdays - although mine happened a few years later (in 1968) :-)
    Although I won't be in my sixties for another 11 years, I am no stranger to forgetfulness. If it weren't for the book reviews on my blog, I wouldn't remember half of what I've been reading.

  5. I think I still remember the name of that mythological river; but when it comes to reciting long poems by heart, I've never been much good at that.

  6. This is exactly how it goes. Thus the "joke" prayer, G-d, grant me the senility to forget the people i never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones i do, and the eyesight to tell the difference!

  7. Just yesterday I was talking with a coworker about a book she was reading that I had read some years ago. As she went on about the plot I decided by the end of the conversation that I needed to reread it because I didn't remember most of what she was talking about! Holy Moly did that make me feel old!

  8. As someone who has little ability to remember anything I regret that I would have to re-write this poem. However there are certainly some references that hit home hard: I need the Muses for crosswords and they just will not stay with me.


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