Scanning the Sounds of Collins’ “Forgetfulness”

 

Scanning the Sounds of “Forgetfulness”

by Andrew Lazo

For this month’s contribution, I’ve decided to muse on Billy Collins’ “Forgetfulness,” though for the life of me I cannot quite recall why. But seriously. . .

While the poem’s point speaks quite well for itself, a close look at the language reveals a deeply-crafted attention to the music of the poem that I’ll try to unpack here. I hope not to desecrate by dissection, but the mechanics of sound in this poem really embody the poem’s taut and tender lyricism. While moving though the stanzas scanning the sounds, I’ll also fill in the references that we may have forgotten—but read it aloud to someone first, for that’s where this poem’s wry laughter lies.

Forgetfulness

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,

not 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.

 

The subtle assonant, consonant, and alliterative tensions in this poem delight me almost as much the laughter that arises from reading it aloud to friends. Take for example the first stanza:

 

Forgetfulness

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,

 

The poem lures readers in subtly and immediately with the interplay of the “f”s and the “o”s: “Forgetfulness,” “first to go”, “followed obediently”. Collins picks up on the “o” sounds next: “plot”, “conclusion”, “novel”, “becomes”, “one”, “of”. He then interplays these short “o”s with long vowels: “name,” “obediently,” “title,” “entire,” “suddenly becomes,” and “even.” Finally, the stanza-ending consonance of “v”s tie the lines together, and closes with both long and short “u” sounds, anticipating the next verse.

This first stanza spins out a deft little dance of sound with a complexity that belies its apparent simple nature, and its crafted quality serves as a counterpoint both to the easily-understood message and the humor of tone. And the second stanza continues this understated contrast:

 

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.

 

In the first stanza, both the long and short “u” sounds (“you” and “conclusion” and the “of” at the end the stanza that does the work both of an “o” and a “u” sound) set up sounds in the second that now take their turn: “you used” and “southern”. He embeds a pun in these lines, for of course one would find the “harbor” as a central fixture of a “little fishing village”. Collins then closes by neatly shifting vowel sounds to “where there are”. Memory may have retired for the poet, but his ear for music still certainly retains its full powers.

 

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,

 

In this stanza, Collins begins to build toward the big joke in his poem with this deftly ironic allusion to the Muses, the nine daughters of the Titan goddess of memory Mnemosyne (this of course explains why we call a memory aid a “mnemonic device”). And naturally we call the building in which we store many of our cultural memories a “museum.” To feature the daughters of Memory in a poem about forgetfulness shows the sharpness of his wit—one can almost see him winking in the lines.

And in case you, dear reader of All Nine, have also forgotten or have never known, the Nine Muses include: Calliope, muse of epic poetry; Clio, muse of history; Euterpe, goddess of flutes and lyric poetry; Thalia, muse over comedy and pastoral poetry; Melpomene, muse of tragedy (and enough of her already!); Terpsichore, goddess of dance (but more of her!); Erato, goddess over love poetry; Polyhymnia, muse of sacred poetry; and Urania, muse of astronomy. Collins here seems to have invoked the aid of Euterpe, Thalia, and Erato in his deceptively deep poem.

And the planets, in case you were wondering, run: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (as we pause a moment to mourn the passing of Pluto). As for the quadratic equation, I’ll shudder and gladly thank God that it and I have finished with each other.

A phrase from each line in this stanza continues Collin’s lyrical anaphors, (sound out these “a” and “e” phrases aloud for pure pleasure of you’d like): “names of the nine Muses goodbye”, “quadratic equation pack its bag”, and “even now. . .memorize”.

 

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

 

In this short stanza, alliteration and consonance interplay with the long “a” sound. It took me a while to get a grasp on the artfulness of these two lines, but now they simply stun me. Notice the alliteration and consonance of the “s”s in “something else is slipping” and then observe how that line sets up the dominant vowel sounds of the “a”s contained in “away”, “state”, “address”, “an”, “capital”, and  “Paraguay” (Collins pronounces this last as a long “a” rather than a long “I”. I checked). By the way, that capital, Asúncion, also contains not only another “a”, but also the “u”s that will soon come in.

 

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,

not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

 

In the first two lines, the interplay of alliteration consonance continues from “s” in the previous stanza to “t” in this (alphabetical order, if you please!). Notice how he does it, using “Whatever”, “it”, “struggling to” (this last word skillfully and subtly pickling up the “s” and the “u” of the previous stanza) / “it”, “not” and “the tip of your tongue”.

And then “tongue” proves delightfully tricky as it unifies the “u” sounds of the stanza, but does so quite sneakily by having its “o” sound like a “u”, and leaving its actual “u” silent. In case we have missed the sound “lurking”, “some”, and “obscure” all follow before the clashing and very funny-sounding “spleen” closes the stanza. For my money, this little stanza does more work than the reams of other stuff I write and read, and delights me in doing so. But the big joke lies just ahead.

 

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.

 

Rather than spoil your fun by scanning and parsing them all, I’ll leave it to you (if you wish) to notice the “l”s and the “w”s and the “a”s and the “o”s and those delightful “d”s of the first line. Instead (spoiler alert), I’ll tackle the big joke of the poem.

In mythology, the Underworld contains five rivers. Most folks know the Styx (and that delightful adjective “stygian,” meaning gloomy or hellish). But Collins here masterfully refers to Lethe, the river of oblivion. Souls in the Underworld drink from this river to forget their earthly existence. So the projected reader of Collins’ poem cannot recall the name of the river of forgetfulness? Sheer brilliance. Incidentally, we get “lethargic” from the name of this river as well, due to the drowsiness produced by drinking from this river. Such gentle cleverness, and couched in such taut language. And so to the final stanza:

 

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.

 

The first line stands out for its “i” sounds: “rise”, “middle”, “night”, while “a” and “u” sounds dominate the second: “date”, “a famous battle in a”. But even the indefinite article “a” sounds like “uh”, and leading to other “u”s and “u” sounds: “look”, “up”, “famous” “a book”. And then Collins skillfully ties it together with the repeated “No wonder you”s, before closing with what I consider the real poetry of the poem.

For he ends with a turn to the window, thence to the moon. This wistful move opens up a whole world with the phrase “drifted / out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.” Somehow, after the laughter, Collins manages to make us sigh sweetly. And rather than end with another clever joke, he closes this masterful little poem with a thought that pierces with its sweetness and sadness all at once.

In so doing, Billy Collins makes this poem worth many re-readings. And just perhaps, I’ll ignore his warnings and find a way to memorize this poem, which has grown on me till it proves quite unforgettable.

 

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