Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Forget What Did", Philip Larkin

Stopping the diary
Was a stun to memory,
Was a blank starting,

One no longer cicatrized
By such words, such actions
As bleakened waking.

l wanted them over.
Hurried to burial
And looked back on

Like the wars and winters
Missing behind the Windows
of an opaque childhood.

And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come.
And when the birds go.

-"Forget What Did", Philip Larkin

Towards the end of my time in college, I took a class in Modern Poetry.  (As a Religion major, I didn't have as many required courses for my major as a lot of other majors did, so I had a lot of elective space in my schedule. Taking an English course was usually my "fun" course for the term.) One of the requirements for this class beyond the regular readings and papers and class participation was to memorize a poem from our Norton Anthology and recite it in front of the class.  I could have picked a poem by any number of poets familiar to me then, or even a poem that I knew fairly well, but instead I chose a poet and a poem I'd never heard of before. I think I did this so that I could approach the assignment with a "blank slate"--no preconceptions about the poet or the poem, no previous feelings or emotions of my own associated with the words.

Forget What Did is not a long poem, just 18 short lines in free verse. It wasn't a difficult assignment for me to memorize, having previously had the task of memorizing lines (even Shakespeare!) for theatre in high school.  And as I worked on the memorization and inflection of the words, of course they began to become a part of me, and I associated certain words or phrases with feelings and emotions I've experienced.

As a girl, I occasionally kept a diary. I would receive a lovely blank diary as a gift, or buy one from the book fair, and rededicate myself to the task of entrusting my thoughts and feelings to its pages. I was never terribly diligent about this and as a result, when I left for college, my bookshelf had a half-dozen diaries half-filled with spelling mistakes, bad handwriting, and the usual teenage angst. I found them largely embarrassing but couldn't bring myself to throw them away.

In the Jewish tradition, when a Torah scroll (Sefer Torah) is aged or damaged beyond use, it is buried rather than thrown away or burned. This is because the Sefer Torah is considered part of God and must be treated with the utmost respect for its holiness. Sacred or profane, words have weight. Once uttered or written, words become a permanent part of history, whether they are ever heard or written by anyone else. Words, like memories, can be buried, but they will never cease to exist once they have been created.

The words in the poem stay with me always, even when I am not thinking about them. Still, sometimes a phrase will float up in my mind the way a bubble floats up from the muck at the bottom of a still pond. And I am reminded of the permanence of the words we put into our minds and onto the page, even if no one reads them.

1 comment:

  1. The Jews have a way of making an idea awfully full of both life and death.

    I've buried so many words. They always come back to me, though not always in their original form. Sometimes they come back as timidity, self-doubt, fear and hatred. Even good words. As in the words of LOST's John Locke "Things don't stay buried here."

    I have a saying. "The truth wants to come out." How many times have we seen in the news, and in our lives, a deep, dark secret come out. Senator sex scandals, Enron and the financial crises... I've had many slips of the tongue where I confess what was meant to be hidden. Or left emails, photos, or documents open to be found that I didn't intend. The truth wants to come out or, as the scripture says, "even the rocks will cry."

    I'll be showing my true colors here, but I'm reminderld of this old Skillet song "everything I bury gets exhumed, I gotta dig deeper."