Poetry and Precarious Memory: Ways of Understanding Less and Less

Paul Hetherington, Cassandra Atherton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Poetry as an art form has traditionally registered tropes of feeling and memory, often with astonishing power, especially since the Romantics began to focus on projections of the self. Yet, when poetry invokes memory, anchoring people to their pasts and identities, it frequently reveals that, at best, memory offers a precarious connection to what is certain or secure – and this is particularly the case for women writers. For example, much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry reveals that memory’s recesses are often uncomfortable, and studies in autobiographical memory confirm poetry’s intuition that all may not be what it seems within the “house” of the recollecting self. This paper explores ways in which poetry’s elusive suggestiveness, and memory’s more fraught instances, confirm the provisionality and precarity of what most people are inclined to take for granted – that they know themselves and can speak securely of who they are. This has always been a challenge for women in patriarchal societies as gender inequality and precarious work – often in atypical employment – has informed and affected their expressions of self and identity. We conclude with examples from the work of two contemporary women poets, Emma Hyche and Mary A. Koncel, in order to focus on their particular approaches to precarity in their poetry and prose poetry and to posit that women poets often disrupt and disturb aspects of the patriarchal language system to offer new constructions of autobiographical memory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
Issue numberSpecial Issue 70
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2023


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