Monday, May 3, 2010


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Persephone, 1874

I have always known about Lethe as the river (or pool) of Forgetting, but the Pool of Memory (i.e. of Mnemosyne, mother of the muses) has remained unknown to me until now, when I found it mentioned in a poem by Ed Hirsch:


I dreamt that you slipped a silver coin
under the tongue of my sleeping body
so I could bribe the miser Charon

to ferry me across the river to Tartarus
where I longed to drink from the pool
of Memory, avoiding the three-skulled dog

on the road to the Fortunate Island
in the Black Sea, near the foaming mouth
of the Danube where I could be reborn,

but I was sentenced to the punishment
field along with other tormented spirits
where I vowed to remember the ghostly

and baleful blue undersongs of Hades
and return with the waking world.

~ Edward Hirsch, from “The Hades Sonnets,” Lay Back the Darkness


The pool of memory is a late, post-Homeric development, an "addition" to the House of Hades that’s related to the Orphic mysteries.

In order to drink from the Pool of Memory, you have to be a spiritual initiate who knows the sacred password. Orpheus was a poet and a musician; in Jungian parlance, Orpheus is the Poet archetype (cf Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus). Most poets and writers drink from the Pool of Memory, and hope to be keep on drinking from it as long as they live, since Memory really is the mother of the muses.

The Pool of Memory was located at the entrance to Elysium, a kind of paradise, though not yet the ultimate paradise, the Fortunate Isles. And this suggests that memory is a reward.

That’s exactly what Jack Gilbert thought. He had hoped to spend his old age feasting on his memories (he wanted to “eat his life,” as Linda Gregg said). Instead turned out to be fated for the River of Lethe. Nevertheless, he gave us some marvelous poems about the transformation of experience into memory.

And it reminds me as well of Rilke's sonnet to 9th Sonnet to Orpheus (Pt I):

Only he who has lifted the lyre
also among the shadows
may render
infinite praise.

One he who has eaten
of the poppy with the dead
will never again lose
the most delicate tone.

Though the reflection in the pool
often blur before your eyes:
Know the image.

Only in the double realm
do voices become
gentle and eternal. 

A poet must know about death and dying, and about the terrible experiences in general. S/he needs to know both the up-close specifics (“know the image”) and the long perspective: the larger journey of life, including mortality. That’s why there are no child prodigies among poets. There is no substitute for a certain minimum of life experience and for the wisdom of a greater perspective. That’s how a poet’s voice becomes both compassionate (“gentle”) and — to some degree, like the “shadows” that live in the underworld of our memories and dreams — eternal.

Great poetry goes beyond what I call “superior journalism.” Great poetry partakes of the Underworld.

No comments:

Post a Comment