A couple of weeks ago, I attended one of the monthly workshops run by the Scottish Poetry Library. The previous month we had spoken about how effective the evocation of tastes and smells can be in poetry, so for this session our leader had brought along a thin metal case full of small sample vials of Penhaligon’s scents. We were each invited to take a vial, smell the scent, and let it guide our production.
This was a great prompt. One of the enjoyable things about this workshop (like Lost Lit in Brooklyn), is that the prompts are so good, I find myself writing something, thinking — Oh, this is good. This is going to be one of the best pieces of work tonight — and then finding that everyone else has produced something at least as good.
I think we’re all aware of the power of the sense of smell; the effect of the whiff of a lover’s perfume in the street, for example. The scent I selected evoked a number of memories; of times past, present and future. All these different feelings could be diced, shuffled, and reassembled to construct a new memory, like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille synthesizing the perfume of a long-lost girl.
Still, the feelings in the poem were real. As with each of the other poems created by the group, we went around the table to solicit remarks. One women paused when asked to relate her reflections on Lady Slipper, thought, and declared, “I don’t know what to say.” I think the message she was kindly trying to convey, whether entirely true or not, was that the emotion of the poem was too intense to discuss. Too real. A poem really is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. How lovely of her to create such a nice thing.
You might say that it’s a writerly trick, a manipulation or deception, to stitch together a scene from a patchwork of memories from different time and places. But that would be wrong. In a way, that’s exactly what memory is in the first place.
I recently learned that, unlike what I remember from school, the states of matter are much more complicated than the certainties of solid, liquid and gas I was taught. Similarly, Charles Fernyhough writes that “the popular perception of memory shows a considerable lag with the new scientific consensus.” Fernyhough, an English doctor of development psychology and author of (among other things) Pieces Of Light: The New Science Of Memory, notes in another piece that two large-scale surveys by the psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher Chabris have shown that around one in two of us think that memory works like a video recorder.
It doesn’t, thank goodness. Y’see, one of the effects of my brain haemorrhage (just to change the terminology up this week) has been a measurable decline in processing speed. And, being kinda rubbish at taking in information makes it harder to remember things in the previously-accepted fashion.
Fortunately as Fernyhouse relates in the second of the articles above), there are strong links between imagination and memory. Memory isn’t just a question of point and click. In fact, evolutionary scientists posit that memory’s function may not be to keep track of the past, but to predict the future. Makes sense, when you think about it.
It turns out, Dr Fernyhough tells us, that “[w]e are all novelists [or poets] when we are remembering.”
We start off with some sensory impressions of an event, along with factual knowledge about who we were then and what was going on for us. We put that information together in ways that reflect who we are now as well as who we were back then.
In other words, we “narrativise” ourselves. It seems to me that, armed with this knowledge, we can not only predict the future, but create new and better selves. This is what I have striven to do with the memory of my stroke; the story of a guy whose rampaging id was funny and grateful and tender.
Yeah. I know. A pretty big leap of imagination, right?