The Frontal Cortex

Poetry and Memory

Why do we remember shards of poetry when we can’t remember anything else? After Tom Chaffin’s brain tumor was removed, he temporarily lost the ability to speak in coherent sentences. (He also lost the ability to move the right side of his body.) And yet, even when he couldn’t name more than two kinds of animals, he was able to recite the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road:

Then about a day or so later, while working with a speech therapist, I found that I could recall the first dozen or so lines of a favorite poem:

“Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.”

I soon discovered that I could repeat — and find solace in — other bits of cherished poetry and song lyrics long committed to memory: shards of Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter and others.

Otherwise, despite the gifted and empathetic medical professionals, there wasn’t much progress. My days became an exasperating game of charades. My interior thoughts remained fluid, but the words to express them had vanished into some neurological Bermuda Triangle.

Eventually, Chaffin regained his full cognitive abilities. He writes eloquently of how Whitman remained when nothing else did:

I’ve since learned that an ability to repeat memorized passages from poems and the like is a common trait among expressive aphasia patients. Even so, I can’t help thinking of those words and images of my interior life as essential landmarks in finding my way back to the outside world. Those lines that came back to me, when all other words failed, provided me with a geography of hope, like some distant but clearly visible shoreline.

Does poetry engage some unique aspect of memory? Does the meter and cadence of verse lodge in our hippocampus with an unusual tenacity? Why poetry, and not ordinary language?

[Thanks, Sari.]


  1. #1 Paul Sunstone
    April 2, 2007

    It does seem interesting that poetry should remain when all else is mostly gone. Sometimes that works to our disadvantage, though: How often do we have a song or even an advertising jingle stuck in our head?

  2. #2 Michael Anes
    April 2, 2007

    Not lodged in the hippocampus, I wouldn’t think. But potentially engaging circuits involving the cerebellum. I’d have to look up some support for this claim though…

  3. #3 Michael Anes
    April 3, 2007

    A partial solution?

    The Cerebellum, Timing, and Language: Implications for the Study of Dyslexia
    Richard B. Ivry, Timothy C. Justus, and Christina Middleton
    University of California, Berkeley
    2001. In M. Wolf (Ed.),
    Dyslexia, Fluency, and the Brain (pp. 189-211).
    Timonium, MD: York Press.

    Pages 8-9 talk about lexical selection and selection demands; poetry presents very little lexical selection demands – it’s memorized, with strict timing (also coordinated by cerebellar structures). The circuitry involves prefrontal areas.

    I’m no expert though! Anyone else?

  4. #4 Eve
    April 8, 2007

    I was about to say the same thing. It’s so rehearsed, you don’t have to fill in any blanks, it just all comes out. Sort of like playing a familiar tune on the piano. Come to think of it, it would be interesting to see whether aphasic patients can start a poem from the middle. I know I have a helluva time starting a piano piece from anywhere but the beginning. If they display the same thing, it might have to do with the same sort of process.

  5. #5 PoetryLover
    September 26, 2007

    Strong and sober times of old
    Walking, creeping towards inner time
    Small cravings across the land
    Wondering, thinking till time has come
    Feelings amongst those of old
    Haunted now and structured future
    Scent of ranched tyranny
    Fill the air
    Touch of gold left behind
    Growing pains and slender bliss
    Crying lower beneath the skin
    Tears pouring, listening to all was done
    Nothing comes or goes
    Nothing seems to change
    All is still the same

    by Gary R. Hess

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