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Friday, September 9, 2011

Number 258: Robert Pinsky "Forgetting"


The forgetting I notice most as I get older is really a form of memory:

The undergrowth of things unknown to the young, that I have forgotten.

Memory of so much crap, jumbled with so much that seems to matter.

Lieutenant Calley. Captain Easy. Mayling Soong. Sibby Sisti.

And all the forgettings that preceded my own: Baghdad, Egypt, Greece,

The Plains, centuries of lootings of antiquities. Obscure atrocities.

Imagine!—a big tent filled with mostly kids, yelling for poetry. In fact

It happened, I was there in New Jersey at the famous poetry show.

I used to wonder, what if the Baseball Hall of Fame overflowed

With too many thousands of greats all in time unremembered?

Hardly anybody can name all eight of their great grandparents.

Can you? Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?

You’ll see, you little young jerks: your favorite music and your political

Furors, too, will need to get sorted in dusty electronic corridors.

In 1972, Zhou Enlai was asked the lasting effects of the French

Revolution: “Too soon to tell.” Remember?—or was it Mao Tse-tung?

Poetry made of air strains to reach back to Begats and suspiring

Forward into air, grunting to beget the hungry or overfed Future.

Ezra Pound praises the Emperor who appointed a committee of scholars

To pick the best 450 Noh plays and destroy all the rest, the fascist.

The stand-up master Stephen Wright says he thinks he suffers from

Both amnesia and déjà vu: “I feel like I have forgotten this before.”

Who remembers the arguments when jurors gave Pound the only prize

For poetry awarded by the United States Government? Until then.

I was in the big tent when the guy read his poem about how the Jews

Were warned to get out of the Twin Towers before the planes hit.

The crowd was applauding and screaming, they were happy—it isn’t

That they were anti-Semitic, or anything. They just weren’t listening. Or

No, they were listening, but that certain way. In it comes, you hear it, and that

Self-same second you swallow it or expel it: an ecstasy of forgetting.

-- Robert Pinsky

Hap Notes: Contemporary culture will become history, some of it remembered, some of it exaggerated, some of it swallowed up in disinterest. What will your grandchildren remember about 9/11, a date soldered into our thoughts as a shockingly painful memory? Think on this– do you remember the Alamo? The shock and pain of the occurrence? Or does it just seem like an old time historical fact to you? The ravages of the Civil War, will your children feel it? With contemporary culture so multi-faceted thanks to the 100+ cable channels and the thousands of sites on the web, what will be your shared cultural memories? And how soon will we forget them as the next fresh scandal, shock or controversy comes up? What are memories made of?

Memories are made and forgotten swiftly now. Our shared cultural experiences come down to the day Kennedy was shot, or John Lennon, or the day Curt Cobain committed suicide or 9/11. Something we remember with shock and horror, if we remember it at all. Does it matter that we remember? George Satayana (who?) said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." So did Edmund Burke (who?) Of course, Henry Ford (who?) said "History is bunk." Henry Ford, I think it should be noted, was a major participant in something that irrevocably changed our history/culture.

In Pinsky's poem are mentioned several cultural touchstones you may or may not know. You might know about the Charlie Sheen hijinks but Lieutenant Calley was a principal military player in the murdering of Vietnamese civilians in My Lai (the "My Lai Massacre.) You might know who the X-Men are but have never read a Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune, comic. You might remember Nancy Reagan but do you recall the influential Madame Chiang Kai-shek AKA Mayling Soong? You know A-Rod but not Sibby Sisti? (Okay, Sibby Sisti is pushin' it, but he's obviously part of Pinsky's cultural history the way Albert Belle is part of mine. [ Soapbox: Belle will never make it into the Hall of Fame, even though he has the numbers, because he was a hotheaded jerk sometimes. It just ain't fair.]) The poetry reading I think Pinsky is referring to is a Baraka one (we've talked about that before here: )

He's right Zhou Enlai did say, when asked about the effects of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell. But all this does get mixed in with our memories of Chairman Mao and the little red book and more cascades of memories that sweep by and then ebb away like the tides.

Pinsky is bringing up a very interesting point about memory being a form of forgetting. Huh? Well, we've gradually become a country of rapid experiences. We get upset about the O.J. trial and then, it fades as a new incident takes its place. Who will remember Casey/Caylee Anthony in 20 years? G. Gordon Liddy (uh, remember Watergate?) ends up as a celebrity on a game show. We remember, we forget, we forget to remember, we remember to forget. The brain is a fascinating mechanism. Pinsky likens our cultural memory riffs to Jazz. It's a heartening analogy.

Robert Pinsky (born 1940) is near and dear to my heart because of his Favorite Poem Project that he initiated while he was Poet Laureate/Consultant to the U.S. from 1997-2000. Pinsky believes that Americans are far more effected, transformed and fond of poetry than the culture would have you believe. In the project thousands of Americans of different backgrounds and ages from every state shared their favorite poems. You can still see it and it is most moving to read, see and hear: The project has inspired hundreds of community poetry readings.

Pinsky was born in New Jersey and much of his poetry is inspired by his geography. He went to Rutgers and received both of his graduate degrees from Stanford. He majored in Philosophy and also studied under poet Yvor Winters. He is an award and endowment winning poet who currently teaches at Boston University and is the poetry editor at Slate.

Those of you who played interactive computer role-playing games will also know him as the author of the (really fun and extraordinary) "Mindwheel" game (Synapse/Broderbund). He was a guest vocal talent on "The Simpsons," too.

Here's Pinsky's remarkable 1999 commencement speech at Stanford:

Here's a good Pinksy quote from that speech: "Improvisation characterizes our music, our clothes, our blue jeans, the get-ups that you have on today, the headlong invention and energy of our businesses, our mass entertainment. But the spirit of improvisation alone, though we may be proud of it, it alone cannot sustain the process that transmits the ways of glassmaking and papermaking, or the ways of understanding ourselves across the generations."

You can find more Pinksy here:

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