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?