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Theme of Memory in 'Incident' by Countee Cullen and 'Forgetfulness' by Billy Collins

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Analysis of works
  3. Works Cited


People have moments where they forget things, then remember specific moments in life that make you wonder. Memory is essential to one’s mental state, either could be a harmful or a good memory. The poems that will be discussed throughout the paper are “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins and “Incident” by Countee Cullen, both are remarkable pieces of writing with significant meanings. Both poems contain literary devices such as metaphors, diction, similes, imagery, personification, and these devices push the poem to become very challenging, but somewhat clear for a reader to understand the poem. In both poems, they are discussing that memory is precious, that comes with dreadful consequences that are not able to be regained or forgotten.

Analysis of works

Memory can have harmful effects that ignite emotions that overwhelm a person. In “Forgetfulness”, the poem has several lines that make the listener feel bad for the speaker in the poem, which in this case is Collins himself. “Whatever it is you are struggling to remember, / it is not poised on the tip of your tongue/​or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.​”, Collins is making metaphors comparing memorization to speaking when a person is tongue-tied, but then memories could pop back up out of nowhere. It makes a reader wonder why Collins decided to use such diction through the poem. Such words as “poised”, “tip”, “Struggling”, and “Spleen” make the lines stand out to a reader. It makes a reader wonder how Collins goes from tongue to spleen, two different body systems, different functions. The imagery throughout the lines as well makes the poem understand the clear message the speaker is trying to make of memory loss. Whereas in the poem “ Incident”, Countee doesnt use metaphors or similes in his poem.

However, Cullen does use diction as Collins did in his poem “Forgetfulness”, but in the form of storytelling in “Incident”. Cullen frames the poem in such a way that it is a story with a happy ending, “Once riding in old Baltimore,/ Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,/I saw a Baltimorean/ Keep looking straight at me.” The poem starts with “Once”, so that brings the timeline back in the past. It gives a reader a certain sense that makes it somewhat of a fairytale, which in this case it isn’t.

There are events that are forever stuck with a person, no matter how hard a person tries to forget them or move past them. In “Incident”, Cullen goes back in his childhood memory remembers a catastrophic memory that won’t ever leave his memory. Cullen discusses the effects of the event that changed his childhood summer at the age of eight, “I saw the whole of Baltimore/From May until December;/ Of all the things that happened there/That’s all that I remember.” The moment that had Cullen scarred at a young age, made him not forget that all throughout his summer of all the things he could’ve possibly done. His memory was never able to get rid of it and counter it with better memories of the summer as a regular kid would.

On the contrary to Collins poem that was able to forget memories that are essential to the person, “Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye/and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,/and even now as you memorize the order of the planets”. Collins talks about the simple things in this stanza such as the nine muses (Greek mythology), the quadratic equation and the solar system, which are basic fundamentals that most people know. But also, attention to line 9, when given the quadratic equation personification of packing to go somewhere, which could be about the memory fading. Both poems contain drastic consequences of either having a memory that stays with a person forever and could scar a person’s soul or having a simple memory that can go away with no sight of returning.

Both poems contain images that are implied by the speakers (authors). In Billy Collins “Forgetfulness”, discusses gradual memory loss and trying to resist memory loss with gaining knowledge, but still losing memories. The speaker discusses the things that are forgotten very thoroughly. For example in “Forgetfulness” Collins describes what happens to a memory after, “​It has floated away down a dark mythological river”, using the allusion of greek mythology as Collins did in line 8 of the “Nine muses”, using the river of lethe, which is the river of forgetfulness. A reader can connect these images from the lines to help comprehend the poem better and bring out ideas from the poem.

In Countee Cullen’s “Incident”, discusses a horrific moment in Baltimore at a young age. Cullen starts the poem with an opening happy phrase then transitions into a horrible moment. Cullen gives an image of anger in his poem for example, “​Now I was eight and very small,/And he was no whit bigger,/And so I smiled, but he poked out/His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’” The speaker recalls this memory very well and was descriptive then remembers the one powerful word coming of the child he was trying to be friendly with.

The irony at this moment starts with the title “Incident”, an incident could be something small, but in this poem, the incident is something way bigger, shaping the speaker’s life. The images can help a reader understand that one memory can shape a person’s life forever and use powerful words. “Incident” by Countee Cullen makes a reader understand “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins with reading certain lines with similes, allusions then implementing some of those elements into Cullen’s poem.

For the most part, a person’s memory will always hold powerful memories then degrade as they age or retain in the brain. Memory has a powerful effect on a person’s emotions. “Incident” and “Forgetfulness” go into extreme detail of the effects of memory and what they do a person’s soul. Although memory will degrade with age, there should be steps to hold those powerful memories. Those powerful memories could be learning blocks to a person’s life, keep those learning blocks in hand. With negative memories, try to replace them with happy moments to forget about those negative moments. Those memories could be locked away and not able to be brought back up no matter what.

Works Cited

  1. Cullen, Countee. “Incident”, ​Literature: A portable Anthology, ​edited by Janet E. Gardner, et al., 4th ed., Bedford/ St. Martins, 2017, PP. 536.
  2. Collins, Billy. “Forgetfulness”,​ Literature: A portable Anthology, ​edited by Janet E. Gardner, et al., 4th ed., Bedford/ St. Martins, 2017, PP. 587.

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Theme Of Memory In ‘Incident’ By Countee Cullen And ‘Forgetfulness’ By Billy Collins. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from
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