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The Poet’s Guide to Looking Back

It’s been far too long since my last post! I know how vital regular posting is to the life of a blog. But sometimes life intervenes and the first thing to be set aside (unfortunately) is the blog. So here I am getting my feet wet again with a new post, using two lovely poems as a jumping off point to take a closer view of looking back.

How often do you look back?

As in, reflect on the past, think about the good ole days, try (but fail) to forget the bad times. We all do it, even when we don’t mean to. We may be minding our own business, when a picture or song triggers a memory, and before we know it we’re lost in the past for a few minutes or a few hours.

People love to tell tales about their past. It helps them make sense of the present. Books and films are filled with the stories of people looking back – biographies, memoirs, documentaries, biopics. We seem to need the past to keep us moving along in the present.

As with so many things in life, poets do it best. This post brings out two poems that can teach us a thing or two about looking back with joy or with just the proper degree of melancholy.


I started thinking about the whole notion of looking back after reading Major Jackson’s wonderful poem “Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden.” This poem, published in the 2006 collection Hoops, is so beautifully descriptive and evocative, so full of life of a time past: 1980s (I think) Philadelphia. In stanza 6, Jackson writes

You have forgotten Ajax and tin pails,
            Blue crystals frothing on marble front
            Steps Saturday mornings, or the garden
Of old men playing checkers, the curbs
White-washed like two lines out to the burbs,

Jackson reminisces about the small details that made his childhood special and particular to that place and time. There’s an upbeat quality about the poem that makes you wish you’d been there, wish you had the same memories tucked away to draw and reflect on and enjoy.

Urban Philly. Marble front steps. Stickball. It made me wonder, what about my own childhood was unique to 1980s Cleveland?

This sign brings back a flood of memories of 1980s Cleveland, when the city had the (supposedly) biggest mall in the world: Randall Park Mall (1976 – 2009). I spent many a Saturday at that mall as a teen, hangin' out with...mom, shopping for...books. Ah, fun (nerdy) times!

This sign brings back a flood of memories of 1980s Cleveland, when the city had the (supposedly) biggest mall in the world: Randall Park Mall (1976 – 2009). I spent many a Saturday at that mall as a teen, hangin’ out with…mom, shopping for…books. Ah, fun (nerdy) times!

Polish Boy sandwiches. The red brick street I grew up on. Desegregation: bussing from the East Side to the West Side. Summer days at Sea World (which has long since closed). When I remember these things, my warm and fuzzy feelings for Cleveland – a town I’ve lived in for about 4.5 years out of the last 25 – grows and expands. But then I get caught up in some activity and don’t think about that period of my life again until something external triggers a memory.

That’s what reminiscing is all about. You enjoy the memory, then move on to your next thought.


Nostalgia is all about longing. The dictionary describes nostalgia as the pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again. It’s the wishing you could experience it again part that’s hard to handle, and when you realize you can’t, that’s where the sadness comes in.

Jackson’s poem is a tribute to an earlier Gwendolyn Brooks poem called when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story. Both poems repeatedly use the phrase “when you have forgotten.” Brooks’ poem is more wistful. At one point, she writes

When you have forgotten that, I say,
And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,
And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone rang;
And how we finally went in to Sunday dinner,
That is to say, went across the front room floor to the ink-spotted table in the
southwest corner

From the poem’s ending, it appears this love story is over. Perhaps it ended too soon? The narrator misses her beloved. Not only does she remember every detail, she wants him to remember as well. This was a connection neither will easily forget. But one, or both of them may try. Brooks’ poem is yearning, almost aching.

Although it usually has a touch of sadness, nostalgia is good for us. According to the New York Times article “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows”:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

The trick is to avoid living in the past. It’s dangerous to rely on past memories to make you feel better today. It takes time away from doing the little and big things that will make today better and setting goals that will help create a positive future. The past is over.

Nostalgia 2.0: Saudades

There’s a different type of nostalgia that can create, rather than ease, anxiety. In Portuguese, it’s called saudade, which, according to Wikipedia, is similar but not equal to nostalgia. This word exists only in the Portuguese language. It “is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

When I first heard about saudades, it was a beautiful idea to me, probably because I’m a dreamer and have felt something like it all my life. I often have this wistful feeling when I see something in a movie that is so perfect and precise that I want to experience it myself in real life, yet I know if I did experience it the cold reality of the moment could never live up to the perfect beauty of the celluloid depiction.

The end of all this unfulfilled longing is, inevitably, emptiness. Except, I think, for creative people. Where there would be emptiness for most, creative types usually fill the space, with stories, poems, songs, paintings, drawings, buildings, theories, dances, inventions, and so on.

The flip side is that creative types, the dreamers, sometimes live too much in their heads. On the surface, this is a contradictory statement coming from a fiction writer like me, who must live in her head to create. But there’s a time for that sort of thing to start and a time for it to end. Constantly escaping the realities of life, by looking back or longing for a place or time that’s never existed, prevents you from living life.

And what are we here for, if not to truly live?

Literature Cited: Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden / when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story.
Author: Major Jackson / Gwendolyn Brooks
Year Published: 2006 / 1945

photo credit: Nich

What do you think? Should we ever look back? How do you avoid living in the past?



2 comments on “The Poet’s Guide to Looking Back

  1. Vee
    July 16, 2014

    Hey there, glad to see you back in literary action!

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This entry was posted on July 14, 2014 by in Literature, Poetry and tagged , .
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