The University of Iowa

The Poetry of Memory

Weeklong June 21 to June 26 2020

"If we spend our lives remembering what we love/ to be sure who we are..." begins a Richard Hugo poem. The poet goes on, partly recalling and partly fabricating a remembrance of place and time. Of course, we don’t only remember “what we love,” but also what we lose, lack, long for, and even loath. But this combination of recovery and creativity, the shaping, re-shaping, recalling and revising that constitutes memory is, perhaps not coincidentally, very much the process of poetry.


How much of the poetry of memory relies on fact, and how much depends upon imagination? Are words merely the vehicles for expressing what we remember, or is memory also inherent in the language itself, if we use it well. Can poems (sound, metaphor, coherence, surprise) sometimes remember more than the poets who wrote them? We live in a time of fragmentation and forgetting, and not only among the aging. With apologies to our current national Poet Laureate, the wonderful Joy Harjo, I sometimes wonder if the person who invented the phrase “Buy now and save” might be considered our de facto poet laureate. Still, maybe it’s not too late for poets like Harjo and others to prompt us toward a deeper, more resonant kind of “saving.” Certainly, poetry often calls upon memory, but can we learn, as writers, to allow poems to also help us remember? Is it even possible to think of memory, for better or worse, as our lifelong poem in progress?


But enough abstraction. What we’ll actually be doing is reading examples of well known modern/contemporary poets remembering—Lucille Clifton, Joy Harjo, Ruth Stone, Yusef Komunyakaa, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Nazim Hikmet, as well as newer poets such as Dorothy Chan and Leila Chatti, and others (though maybe the best poems remain simultaneously old and new). We'll generate and share new poems (yes, there will be assignments), suggest revisions of older poems, and exchange practical ideas in a supportive community of writers about the relationship between poetry and memory. The immediate goal is to navigate the space between fact and fabrication in order to say something important for the writer, and meaningful, maybe even memorable for the reader. The longer term goal is for each writer to leave the workshop with new poems (and friends), as well as inspiration for continued writing, and some practical tools (it is a workshop, after all) for bringing those poems into being. The course is open to writers at all levels of experience.


In this workshop, we will generate new writing through exercises and assignments; critique writing you bring from home; provide feedback on writing you produce in our week.