Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Memory Palace frolics--

Courtesy of Eva Schuster
of Dresden, Germany
and sxc.hu--"vaults in
colour from the palace
Alcazar in Seville."
I've decided to work my brain a little harder, now that I've had such a big birthday and am arrowing toward twilight on planet Earth. After all, when I'm writing, I'm having the sheer mad joy of making things up, and when I'm reading--when lucky in my choices--I am reveling in somebody else's words. It doesn't feel much like work, as for good or ill I'm not one of the sorts of writers who sweats blood at the keyboard. Maybe that only works with typewriters. I tend to enjoy it even more when things get knotty, and I like taking a machete and slashing away at what I've made. So neither writing nor revising nor reading is sufficiently unpleasant as to seem like brain exercise (perhaps I should read theory? abstruse alchemical texts? Kierrkegaard?)

So I'm going to re-memorize poems I once knew--should be fairly easy--and memorize new ones--less easy. I just started with Hopkins, "Spring and Fall" and Shakespeare's sonnet 98, "From you have I been absent in the spring." Both of those I knew long ago.

Once I took a seminar from critic Mark Spilka. We all had to deliver a paper, and mine included seven Frost poems. (I don't even remember which ones, now, except that "After Apple-Picking" was harder to learn than the others.) As the course went on, I noticed that our professor never looked at the students when they were reading their papers. I memorized all seven of the poems in my essay and practiced them well, and I remember feeling it a signal victory that we stared each other in the eyes during the recitation portions.

What a funny young woman I must have been!

Anyway, I'm now bad at remembering poems and would like to be good at it once again. So I'm planning on using these methods:
  • paying extra attention to the first and last words of each line
  • paying attention to meter 
  • attention to sensation and color in the poem
  • adding extreme mental images where needed (staff music above Shakespeare's birds, cartoon wiggly lines for fragrance above flowers, etc.)
  • paying extra attention to the words that start stanzas and suggest structure (As, in 98, I'm focusing on "From, Yet nor, Nor, Yet," a succession that is a little confusing, especially since "nor" comes in for quite a bit of use in the poem.)
  • focusing on repeating the lines that are particularly odd in syntax (Hopkins's "Nor mouth had, no nor mind expressed," for example)
  • using buildings that mean something to me as memory palaces when needed--as, my rickety federal house in Cooperstown and the also-rickety arts-and-crafts/Tudor house in Greenville, the Queen Anne house and the primitive house where I spent part of my summers as a child
Just call me Loci-loki, mischief-maker!

20 comments:

  1. You were a funny young woman, much as you are now! I like that your brain is always working at some new thing.

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  2. Knowing poems verbatim requires a degree of 'acting' ability, I think. One has to become the part until the words flow as naturally as if they were your own spontaneous expressions.
    It takes patience and practice, but I bet that gets easier in time.

    More power to you, Marly!

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  3. Robbi,

    Hah. Julie the Ant-licker said on facebook that this post proved I was still a funny woman! In the best way, of course. Whatever that is. :D

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  4. Paul,

    A memorized poem comes out rather differently than a poem read from the page. I like that. Also, one feels it more deeply, I think, understands it better than before. The pauses become more nuanced (except where one pauses because one can't quite remember!)

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  5. Memorization is a lost art. Long past generations could easily memorize thousands of line of poetry. As for myself, my memory is now a bit like a sieve . . . a very leaky sieve. In any case, I wish you success in your impressive endeavor. And if you get discouraged, think of actors in Shakespeare's era who memorized their parts in a day or two of rehearsals. Then there is Homer if you really want an inspirational model.

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  6. R. T.,

    I'm finding those little techniques to assist memory very helpful. Surprising, really. I haven't had to use the Memory Palace as yet.

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  7. Aye, this brings back painful memories of trying to memorize poetry! I wish you had been my teacher with these techniques of yours, Marly!

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  8. I just don't understand memory. I simply cannot remember words and titles, but I can remember faces and ideas. One of my sisters could remember the whole of Morte d'Arthur. I couldn't remember the first line. Anyway, I wish you well in your re-memorising project.

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  9. marja-leena,

    I really thought I couldn't do it. But learned two yesterday! Maybe a short one today...

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  10. Tom,

    I find my memory to be quite whimsical; it often retains crazy little details and blocks on names and essentials. But maybe it will improve.

    Now they're saying rosemary oil improves memory for mature people...

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  11. Good luck with your enviable project, Marly! I still remember a lot of "Birches" - the Frost poem I had to "deliver" to my 10th grade English class. But my Arab father-in-law, coming from a more oral culture, could recite huge amounts of Arabic poetry by memory. I always envied that, and the way the poems he knew by heart seemed woven into his very being.

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  12. Beth,

    Yes, I hope that I keep it up. Yesterday I managed the two, and tonight I'm going to do "The Song of Wandering Aengus," which I've read so often it should not be hard.

    You do notice right away that you know the poem in an entirely different way...

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  13. I met someone who had memorized the entirety of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. I guess he had time on his hands.

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  14. R. T.,

    Was he a competitor in those memory contests/conventions?

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  15. No, he is merely an obsessed Hemingway scholar.

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  16. R. T.,

    That way lies madness.

    I can't imagine that--too much! Memorizing poetry is one thing, but novels seem quite another. I'm not sure that's the one I would want in my head, anyway! Maybe "The Scarlet Letter." Or "Pride and Prejudice." Or "Tom Jones." Oh, I don't know!

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  17. He is H. R. Stoneback. He recently visited my campus. He wrote an interesting "travel guide" to TSAR. And like too many Hemingway scholars, he sports a white beard, almost as if he were preparing for the Key West look-alike contest. He is not mad. But he is . . . different.

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  18. I shall have to look up his name!

    And am glad to hear that he is not mad, as I so unfairly suspected, given his ruling passion of TSAR.

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  19. I memorize poetry and recite aloud to myself in the car on long journeys. It works wonderfully, and keeps me alert when I might otherwise get sleepy. Recently I realised that I hadn't memorised any new poetry in quite a long time, and moreover found myself struggling to recall poems I'd once known perfectly by heart. But going back to texts, I found the memories weren't gone, they were only slumbering, and once nudged, every one I looked at came back to me without any trouble. There was plenty of Youmans, Bonta, Selch, Walford Davies, James and Urquhart waiting to be dredged into the light, each one recalled perfectly once the ball was rolling.

    I wish you all good fortune with your project, Marly. You are a woman brimming with treasuries of words.

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  20. Hello, Clive--

    If you have any tips, let me know! A lot of the poems you memorize are not metrical or rhyming, so those are, I think, considerably more difficult.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.