To the extent that memorability is one of the poet's chief (even if unconscious) concerns, poetic composition may be seen as a kind of mnemonic “reverse engineering” that utilizes the very operating procedures of verbal memory. In this article, I focus on the similarities between the cognitive operations involved in the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (a frustrating failure to retrieve a known but temporarily unavailable word) and those involved in creating the anagram, a poetic device discovered by Ferdinand de Saussure, in which the phonemes of the important theme word of a poem are dispersed throughout the body of the poem, while the word itself remains unsaid. Both the retrieval of a word on the tip of one's tongue and the (re)construction of an anagram involve sorting through the phonetic and semantic cues that hint at the absent target word. I suggest that these similarities may be due to the fact that both phenomena are subserved by a common cognitive mechanism: semantic and perceptual priming. On the basis of this analogy, I argue that in both ancient and modern literary traditions the anagram, whose origin puzzled Saussure, may have served a mnemonic function. The case study is provided by Osip Mandel'shtam's poem “I have forgotten the word that I wanted to say”—which both contains an anagram and presents an introspective analysis of the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.
Skip Nav Destination
Research Article| June 01 2009
Mikhail Gronas; Just What Word Did Mandel'shtam Forget? A Mnemopoetic Solution to the Problem of Saussure's Anagrams. Poetics Today 1 June 2009; 30 (2): 155–205. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2008-007
Download citation file: