Do you remember those Magic Eye pictures? I thought they were a craze in the 80s but according to their website it was the 90s (I seem to have mislaid a decade somewhere or other). The pictures came to mind this morning when I was trying to remember a name I’d forgotten: something about the way I had to stop striving to see the 3D image in order to be able to do so made me think of what it can be like these days trying to retrieve something from long-term mental storage. And that made me think of ‘Forgetfulness‘ by Billy Collins. If you can bear not to read it straight away, do click the red arrow by the title to hear the author reading it. It’s a great way to meet the poem.
The audience’s reaction in the recording mirrored my own experience of the poem. There’s something so delightful in the selection of images Collins uses: the randomness really captures something about the nature of the experience he’s evoking, while the humour—and of course the experience of reading to know we are not alone—allow us to acknowledge the truth of what’s being said.
But I do think there’s a change in mood as the poem proceeds and the forgetfulness spreads. The laughter of recognition from the audience diminishes until by the end we (and they) are left with that final, wistful, somewhat melancholy image. I think the melancholy lies not just in the echo of Larkin’s ‘Sad Steps‘ (another poem about ageing though with a very different, recognisably-Larkin flavour!) but in ‘Forgetfulness’ itself, as though the poem is a process of being somewhat sobered by what starts off as a joke. I’d say the Comic Muse still carries the day, though. And thanks to that external memory bank also known as the internet I can even tell you that her name is Thalia.