Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless, —
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.
Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, — or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, — white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.
I can remember much forgetfulness.
In his essay General Aims and Theories (1925) Hart Crane quoted Blake’s lines “We are led to believe in a lie/ When we see with not through the eye”.
Forgetfulness is a poem that certainly offers us a vision of experience seen through the eye, by which I mean that Crane has tried (to quote his own words in General Aims) to establish the poem as “free from [his] own personality”; it is “a stab at truth” – its aim is “not toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an innocence (Blake) or absolute beauty”. Rather than telling us what forgetfulness is, he invites us to inhabit forgetfulness, and to discover via our own senses what it is. He offers us the possibility of perceiving the truth and essence of things rather than their arbitrary, disposable, surface forms.
Crane admitted that it is probably impossible to write a poem that sees purely through and not with the eye (for the ‘I’/’eye’ always has something to say!), however, he tries to realise his ideal of poetry by choosing his terms of expression “less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associated meanings”, thereby creating what he called a “‘logic of metaphor'”, which “antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension”.
Forgetfulness is a poem that presents us with a world that wants understanding through the senses and (very appropriately) through our own memories and associations. Of course, the notion of forgetfulness can have various interpretations. Initially, I thought of it in terms of forgetfulness in old age – afflictions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – and for me this gives an extremely poignant reading of the poem. However, we might also think in terms of deliberate forgetfulness – the purposeful forgetting of painful memories or past happiness that cannot be recovered. There is also room, I think, for reading this piece as being about choosing to forget (or rather ignore) certain literary conventions or traditions. This latter concept was something that Crane was much concerned with, as I will discuss later.
“Forgetfulness” begins the poem “is like a song/ That, freed from beat and measure, wanders”. I love this opening; this is such a unique and brilliant notion – that forgetfulness can be something beautiful and uncontrolled. Crane here certainly evokes a lack of logical coherence, but he also suggests a liberation from the constraints of structure and the prison of Time. There is also an ambiguousness (principally brought about by the word “wanders”) about whether the forgetful person is sad and lost or just happily, obliviously drifting. The overwhelming sensation for me in this first stanza is that the poet favours the latter option (notice the words “song”, “freed”, “wanders”, “bird”, “outspread”, “unwearyingly”…)
The idea of forgetfulness being a “bird whose wings are reconciled,/ Outspread and motionless” could be read negatively in the sense of passive resignation, however, reconciliation is necessarily a positive thing – a coming to peace – and this and all my senses tell me Crane is suggesting more of a relaxing into the gentle currents of forgetfulness, allowing the mind to travel – to “coast… unwearyingly” on the wind. The word “motionless” is very important. A lack of motion of course denotes an absence of progression. But there is a strange, deceptive stillness about this image; the bird is gliding or “coasting” – and this is not an image of letting go or of resignation but of allowing oneself to be carried.
This stillness is the same that I feel in the mention of the “rain at night” – a moving, wakeful, secret stillness. There is also an undeniable feeling of loneliness here, delivered by the “old house in the forest” and “a child”. These symbols of loneliness are importantly disparate, however the loneliness of age and the loneliness of a child are quite similar in the respect that both children and the elderly can be isolated by being unable to communicate or by inhabiting a different (emotional) world from those around them. I do not think that these images of the old house and the child are purely negative, however. There is something rather quaint or romantic about an old house in a forest – something secret and wonderful – like the “rain at night”. A child, too, is not only connected with loneliness – far from it – children give up images of wonder, joy, and again – secrets. A secret, exclusive, fleeting and wonderful world.
Crane also describes forgetfulness as “white” and “white as a blasted tree”. I love these images. White delivers the obvious notion of purity and innocence (easily reconcilable with the image of the child). It also makes me think of a blank page, a terrifying vision of what it might be like to remember nothing at all – when all memory has gone. But white is so different from blackness – white is not nothingness, it is not annihilation – it is something beautiful, clear and pure, something good. It is not non-being, it is not death. Even the “blasted tree”, which injects the notion of a victim here, is not such a terrible one because it is white. A black, blasted tree would be burned, but this one is white and retains its beauty, its purity.
Taking the image of the blank page now (that dreadful “white”), I would like to discuss the way in which I think this poem is exploring the notion of using new forms of (or rather formless) poetry. Crane writes that forgetfulness may “stun the sybil into prophecy,/Or bury the Gods.” When I read these lines they instantly struck me as concerned with the writing of poetry. If “forgetfulness” is ignoring old conventions (the “beat and “measure” we were freed from in the first stanza) then I think Crane is saying here that choosing to use free verse will either stun – shock, stimulate – the poet into “prophesy” – make him a visionary poet – or else “bury” him. Using free verse – abandoning the crutch of strict form – separates the ‘men from the boys’ as it were (or the true poets from the amateurs).
Hart Crane saw himself as the direct inheritor of, and was enormously influenced by, Walt Whitman, the great master of ‘free verse’. As he set out in General Aims and Theories, “it is part of the poet’s business to risk not only criticism – but folly – in the conquest of consciousness I can only say that I attach no intrinsic value to what means I use beyond their practical service in giving form to the living stuff of the imagination”. Another poet who would have agreed with Crane was of course Keats (“if poetry does not come as easily as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all”).
I think I will end this post, however, with a quote from Allen Ginsberg, another inheritor and spiritual brother of Whitman, who wrote in his essay When the Mode of the Music Changes the Walls of the City Shake (1961) that
“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.
This for me really encapsulates all that I wanted to say about Crane’s poem. Whether we are talking about an elderly person suffering from dementia, somebody purposefully forgetting a painful memory of violence or lost love, or else the chosen forgetfulness of ignoring certain poetic forms or constraints, what lasts, what matters; what will never be consumed is the “Voice out of the burning bush”. That voice is love and it is the human spirit.