“Forgetfulness”

by themusingidealist

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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,
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 its 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

or 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 on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

-Billy Collins

When I first encountered this poem it struck me, perhaps harder than it does most. As a teacher, I require my students to learn a great deal. I’ve always firmly believed that education was more than memorization and regurgitation, more than formulas and charts and terms and dates. This poem, however, pushed that belief even further. We’ve all had this experience. Gradually things slip away, some more quickly and completely than others: conversations we’ve had, vacations we’ve taken, people we’ve known. Students I taught last year now remember only a fraction of what we discussed and they’ll remember even less of it next year. Even the books we read are largely forgotten. What, then, is the role of a teacher in light of this forgetfulness? What should we be teaching our children and students?

This reminds me of Socrates’ question to Meno, “Can virtue be taught?” If it can’t and Collins is right in his assessment of our minds’ relationship to information, what is left? Or is he being a bit too pessimistic?

This reminds me of another quotation that is generally attributed to Emerson: “I don’t remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten. Even so, they’ve made me.”

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