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This article is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

Memory and Her Fearsome Daughters James Sutherland-Smith

A hunt through the encyclopedias and on the internet reveals very little about Mnemosyne, the mother of the nine muses, herself the muse of memory. The introduction to one of the slightly lunatic entries on the internet claims that her face is 'always hidden'. So we have no idea whether she is beautiful or plain, or what the expression on her face is; sullen or cheerful, menacing or with the tranquillity of a Madonna. The concealment of her face is an intriguing image for poets as memory is ultimately the source of our work. We work with language, which is a complex of conventions of meaning for verbal and written signs sustained by collective memory. Its devices of, for example, grammar, syntax, collocation, simile, and metaphor, are mnemonic and multiply meaning for an individual sign so as to, if I may borrow very freely from Chomsky, create an infinite set of meanings from a set of finite signs. Poets constantly seek to create new meanings, but cannot escape from the gravity of memory which is contained in the language they write in. The attempts to fly free of this gravity may be spectacular to witness, but when they succeed the necessary consequence is incomprehension. Poetry may collocate more widely than other forms: devices such as rhyme, word play, and paronomasia may bring the unlike together, but the comprehension of the figures created depends on remembering what their elements originally, conventionally mean.

Yet if poets cannot achieve the ...

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