Thursday, February 20, 2014

POESIS 2 DRAGON: Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

The Jabberwock by John Tenniel


By Lewis Carroll

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

Other Slithy Creatures by John Tenniel

After Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Cove, packed with the unfamiliar and strange cryptolect of Thieve's Cant, I wanted the next poem I memorized to be almost non-sensical. I still wanted a challenge. That I was able to memorize the Villon poem filled me with confidence. It was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be - like climbing up to the top of a steep ridge. I wanted to see what a mountain would look like. I wanted to memorize a mountain of a poem. At this early stage, I believed I would find a memory mountain in non-sense. Jabberwocky is perhaps the most well-known non-sense poem in the English Language.

Many years ago, when I working at Taylor's Books in Dallas, Texas, I was shelving with another employee, Mary. I paused to look at a illustrated edition of Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll with the iconic illustrations of John Tenniel. Mary said that was one of her favorite books.

"I can even recite Jabberwocky from memory," she told me. "Want to hear it?"

Naturally, I said yes.

And then listened as she seemed to weave a spell in the air. Her voice suddenly was more animated and the strange tale of the Jabberwock made a deep impression upon me.

I  encountered the Jabberwock again in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, trying to parse through the untranslatable poem and master it with my memory. But to avail. The Jabberwock defeated me half-hearted attempts to impress it into my youngish mind. But now, since I had been working more on memory, it appeared a good challenge to make another attempt to slay the Jabberwock. 

Perhaps I was in better shape mentally, but it was surprisingly easy to memorize Jabberwocky. In fact, it was a lot of fun. It is a great piece to memorize, the non-sense bodies forth delightfully whimsical images, it has a strong narrative flow and has enough mystery and weirdness to bear repeating.

I wondered at my previous attempts at memorization. Why did it seem so difficult then?

I think this is a fairly common feeling when you are first starting to memorize. You see the seven stanzas, thick with unusual words, telling a strange tale, as a forbidding beast. You doubt you could even memorize the first stanza,  much less the entirety of the poem. You try the first line: "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves." Repeating it to yourself a few times. Then the next: "Did gyre and gimble in the wabe." Repeating. But then you go try to remember the first line again and it has vanished. It is like you can only hold one line in your memory at once. As long as you can keep repeating the one, you remember it. But once you start repeating something else, what you were trying to remember before is gone.

Here is what is going on:

Consider when you are trying to remember the seven digits of a phone number. You get the digits and start repeating, say: 867-5309. Maybe you even make a little melody of it. But you feel like you are kind of juggling them in your mind, robotically cycling through the numbers until you can find a pen to write it down or dial the number. If someone comes up and tries to talk to you, you might even start saying them out-loud to override what they are saying and let them know you are trying to keep a phone number in your memory.

Now, think of someone telling you an address. You have a rough map in your head. You ask for a familiar intersection. They give you directions from there. You mentally travel along the map in your head, remembering the intersection, turn right at the red house, left by the dead tree, look for yellow car in the driveway.

Several weeks later, if you try to remember the phone number, it is gone. However, with the address, even if you cannot recall the number and street, chances are good that you could still find your way over there.

The difference is that you imagined a map, a scene, a scenario, to fix the memory. It is not natural for our neural "wiring" to be inclined to make visual maps for a string of numbers. As far as survival in the world, it is not the most useful sort of ability. However, to remember the spatial information where there was food or a bear or water is very important information.

We are very good at remembering visual and spatial information. And our capacity for this sort of information is enormous.

What is amazing about our ability to remember spatially and visually is that we can "trick" our brain into remembering a long string of numbers, 100 places of Pi or a phone number, by visualizing it on a mental map or memory scene. ( cf.

So there you are with the first line of Jabberwocky. If you are having trouble remembering it, chances are good that you are seeing at as a phone number. The words don't mean anything. You don't see the rhyme or reason to it. You are not allowing it to stimulate your imagination.

[It is a slightly obscure, but the above phone number is etched into my memory because of the song, 867-5309/Jenny by Tommy Tutone. It no longer sits in my memory as a series of numbers, it is, perhaps unfortunately, as a musical memory - which transcends even spatial memory. ]

One of the best things about Jabberwocky - and makes it so easy to memorize - is that it is an intensely visual poem. And, best of all, you can create your own meanings for much of it. You imagine the Jabberwock however you like. Because there are not, nor have there ever been, any Jabberwocks.

For the longest time, I saw the Jabberwock as a dragon. My visual indexing icon for the poem is a dragon. But not so long ago, I realized there is nothing to indicate that the Jabberwock looks anything like a dragon. Popular culture and Tenniel's drawing, of course, give the Jabberwock a dragon-like appearance. But it does not necessarily have to be this. The same goes for the slithy toves and the mome raths.

There are no limits to the memory scene you can imagine for this poem, for that matter, any poem.

Jabberwocky is perhaps one of the most annotated poems in English. There is a cornucopia of information about its composition and the etymological mixtures swimming around in the words. You can try to get your vision as close to Carroll's as is possible. My sense of it, though, is that Lewis Carroll wrote it for fun. To be read with a smile. To put non-sense words that sounded like sense words into grammatically correct places and tell a good tale. Mostly, for the reader to imagine for themselves this good tale, for the reader to create and slay and be the beamish boy (or girl) hero of the tale.

If you use your imagination to conjure up the time, say night, when it was brillig - maybe brilliant and chilly or dark and stormy. Then see yourself standing on the shore below the castle, in the cold and brillig air, watching the slithy toves, like musical penguin-seals, gyre or spin, and gimble or flip their shining tails, in the wabe, or the fiery water as the setting sun hit it; if you can let the poem inspire these, or similar or whatever, images for you, then you will have no trouble memorizing the poem.

And I encourage you to speak it out loud in a funny voice or with a strange accent. Scottish or English, bad French or Spanish, like Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or an Old Prospector. It will bring the poem to an animated life and make you wonder that you ever had any difficulty memorizing, slaying, the Jabberwock.

I will add that Jabberwocky was not the mountain I was looking to memorize. But it did offer me some perspective by reminding me to not be so serious about it all. We are also wired to remember what is most fun and joyful and happy. An active imagination burns brightest with music and laughter.  

Jabberwock: a Monthly Magazine for Boys and Girls, 1905

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

SCRIPTUM 1 WAR: Notes on the Gettysburg Address


At Lake Padden. 3 miles today. Up through the back trail to avoid people. Initially just watching the flow of my thoughts as I walked, things to do emerging below the surface, bits of song, melody, memories of friends and family, conscious of my reflection on the surface, trying to see down to the depths. Irritated by the presence of others. Knowing I will have to find more remote areas to walk in as the weather improves. 

Pier at Lake Padden

Working on prose today. Starting at the beginning of the index: The Gettysburg Address. Focusing only on this. Already memorized, just refreshing and reminding. Nothing else for the entire walk so there is no pressure to move on to another piece. Here and now there is plenty of time and space to meditate deeply on Lincoln's words.

I can feel the sinews of my mind - images of vines or green tree limbs - being twisted into this thought. One of the effects I love most about memorizing is when you can feel your thoughts being forced into the thought-language of another - especially if that other is Shakespeare or Lincoln.

The Gettysburg Address is a wonderful prose speech to experience this with. I follow the Bancroft Copy, so there are only 273 words.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln composed it in three sections, but I have adapted it to four.

What is most striking upon the entering into the language is the manner in which Lincoln refers to "that nation." Not "this nation." Not "our nation." But "that nation." As you are learning it, there is a tendency to want to say "this nation." By using "that nation," Lincoln creates a sense of distance. We listeners, we readers, are looking from the outside in at "that nation." We are considering whether it can endure. "That nation" is at war with itself, will it survive?

In the second section, he underlines this by using the awkward "that that" construction: "those who here gave their lives that that nation might live." The double that construction emphasizes the dissonance the country is suffering.

In the final section, after a series of "that clauses," there is a beautiful rhetorical answer to the awkward "that that" in the line: "that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people." Here is what sounds right: "that this." Two of them right in a row.

Note also, the Shakespearian conceit from the sonnets in the "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Of course, the words have built a temple for the Gettysburg dead inside our history more enduring than any physical monument.

There is also a masterful movement in how Lincoln speaks of those who died. Here is the progression:

1. "a final resting place for those who here gave their lives"

2. "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here"

3. "that from these honored dead we take increased devotion"

4. "these dead shall not have died in vain"

Note the gentleness of the first line. Then the more individual, specific definition, moving from "those who gave" to "brave men, living and dead." Then it is only the "honored dead." And finally, the blunt stern tone of "these dead shall not have died in vain." From "those who gave their lives" to "these dead."

Also the placement of the word "here" in this passage:

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live.

I keep feeling the pull of placing "here" after "We are now have come." However, by holding it back, Lincoln gives the sentence more punch by placing after "a final resting place for those who." They died HERE then the added tension of the "that that." HERE they died so THAT nation might live. The effect is more obvious when you speak it out loud.

Note the interruptions from applause.

Then, in what I consider the core of the address, the two similar statements that are twisted just slightly to great effect:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.

Note how similar the language is in both. "For us, the living, rather" becomes "It is rather for us." And "to be dedicated here to" becomes "to be here dedicated to." When you are trying to memorize the Address for the first time, this is a tricky patch of prose. At first, I wondered if Lincoln has simply written the sentence, then, seeing it was awkward, rephrased it but neglected to cross out the first. Then just went with it.

But after learning the Address by heart, repeating this passage over and over, I came to see that the first statement emphasized the subject, "us, the living" and the second emphasized the verb, "to be here dedicated." By repeating it out loud. You get the first impression that we, the living, must dedicate ourselves to the Unfinished Work. Then the second impression, so close to the first, takes the Unfinished Work and equates it with the Great Task, which the heart and soul of the Address: to "take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion." Beautiful language and logic.

This sentence: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion" is a subtle phrase that seems to twist a bit in the memory. It needs the prior statement to set it up to be more easily, but more forcefully, comprehended.

Struggling to memorize this last section of the Address was were I most sensed those twisting of the sinews of my own thinking into that of Abraham Lincoln's.

I walk around Lake Padden reciting Lincoln's Address to myself over and over, contemplating each word and each phrase, the meaning of the whole piece, smiling to sense his thought guiding mine, feeling the his presence there with me, as alive as it was over 150 years ago.

Chain on Pier at Lake Padden

Path at Lake Padden

Heron at Lake Padden

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it


The language is revealing here. 

I often will say I am “placing a poem in my memory.” But this doesn’t seem quite right. There certainly is a geographic component. However, while my method uses elements of the Method of Loci - indeed, the name of this blog is The Memory Cathedral - it is not critical that I find a place, a topos, for the poem or its parts. 

I also will say I am “committing a poem to memory.” But this feels like I am preparing to murder it or place it in an asylum. 

The Shakespearean “impressing a memory upon the matter of my mind” is evocative and helpful to decode Elizabethan metaphor, but suffers from the limitations of two-dimensionality. I imagine images or words pressed into wax tablets. The same with “imprinting upon my memory” - associations with the letterpress, words hammered into the paper of a page.

To “memorize” conjures up conflating images of Svengali-esque mezmerizing - although the hypnotic element may be helpful. 

I can “store” something in my memory like putting it a mason jar in the root cellar or in a cigar box in the closet. Some Ed Gein or Freudian disconsonant element here. Sherlock Holmes’s notion of storing memories in an attic is here: as one items goes in the front, another falls out of the back . 

I can “retain” a memory like damn holds back the flow of the river to create a reservoir. Evocative and hydraulic but with unfortunate alimentary connotations. See also absorb and digest. 

I like the visceral qualities of apprehend and comprehend - the prehensile tail of the mind securing us to the branches of events - but these terms seem more elements of the process of memorization, of how we reach out to “grasp hold of” what we want to memorize. See also the psychological terms of recall and recognition - what happens after memory. See also re-mind, re-store, and, one of the most mysterious words in the language, re-pre-sent. 

I always get fascinated by those “re-“ prefixes. When I see them before a word, it is like an X on a Pirate’s Map. They mark a mystery and shed light on the nature of memory. This is the language of Lazarus, bringing something back from a previous life. Listen to the past tense here, haunting and with an aura of sadness: Shakespeare’s sonnets re-mind us what it was like to have been in love, but do not re-store us to that state of love, perhaps leading us to re-sent love when we see it so alive in others, but we re-member that love never dies as long as hope re-mains. 

I love the colloquial idea of “learning it by heart.” I overuse this because it speaks most accurately about how it feels to have a poem living within your soul - this emotional component is crucial. 

There is also “nailing it down” which always has me crucifying the poor poem upon the cross. 

I can “fix the poem in my mind.” But as I was raised in Texas, if you are not fixing a car or your hairdo, then you are fixing to go. Sometimes you are even fixing a hole - which is closer to memory than anything. But fixing is a slippery fish of a word - would that it would fix itself - creating more problems in thinking about memory than it solves. 

Of course, much of the difficulty is our lack of self-knowledge about what our memory is and how it works. Most of the time, we do not think about it. A moment of re-flection reveals how bizarre this is. (Memory as a mirror that captures everything it reflects.) We all take memory for granted. Yet, we are composed of memories. All that we know of our self are our memories or our experiences. These should be like treasures that we keep in a sacred chamber, constantly organizing and straightening, dusting and polishing to keep bright. Instead they collect in unorganized heaps and piles  with no rhyme or reason. Spend just a few moments with a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s to see just how important memory is to our sense of who we are. 

The more we think about memory, the more profound it becomes. It is a place, a thing, we, in effect, personify our memory. It is also an act, a process, an exercise, a discipline. It is how we know ourselves and the world around us. 

We are memory. So it is not surprising to find it difficult to define, clustered around with colloquialism and euphemism. It is a mystery that transcends the reach of language. In the end our memories are, sadly all too often, only cheap souvenirs of what we actually experienced and our words for those souvenirs even less. 

Still, what we do remember is beautiful. And to explore one’s memory, to watch how it works, to meditate upon it, to study and train, to seek to improve and enrich one’e memory is one of the true gifts of being human. 

Simply put: this process is education.

My concern over what to call the process of memorizing a poem is equally as simple: I “learn” the poem. 

It is useful to trace the etymological roots of “learn” down  into the rich earth of Old English and Old High German: “the sole of the foot” evolving to “following or finding the track of.” This is catching memory in the act. It is to “follow the path” of the poet as he leads the way through language. Even more, “to track:” to look for marks in the Wilderness, signs that show the way the creature went. By looking at mark and sign, by understanding the words, we follow the poet deep into the poem until we are surrounded in the meaning of the thing, until we “find” the poem. Again those German roots are clutching: “find” comes out of findan, “to come upon.” When we learn a poem, we have memorized it, placed it, committed it to memory, we have found the path into the language, figured out the meaning of the marks there, what the signs of the words signified until we have been led into the clearing where we find the poem itself, the meaning, the truth of the beast. (cf. to be educated, “to be led out of”)

The goal of education, of learning, is knowledge. And to gain knowledge is to increase your understanding and awareness of the world, to be able to more clearly discern what is just and good and beautiful. Socrates: it is not life that is to be chiefly valued, but the Good Life. By such knowledge, we might hope for wisdom. 

I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.  
Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved or disapproved.  
The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” 
But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. 
- Plato, Phaedrus

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

POESIS 65 WOLF: A Dirge by John Webster

Walking around Padden. Towards evening. Not as many people on the path. Takes about an hour. Just a little over 2.5 miles. This is my primary place to walk and memorize.

I stop by the bridge to record the sound of the water flowing out of the lake, through the concrete dam, into the creek. Like white noise.

Working on three pieces:

John Webster's Dirge:

CALL for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm,
And (when gay tombs are robb'd) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that 's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.

Initial encounter with Webster was through The Waste Land:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!          75
You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

Note the change from wolf to dog. In the footnotes, this note:

74. Cf. the Dirge in Webster’s White Devil.

Then, Eliot's Whispers of Immortality begins:

WEBSTER was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin. 
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls     5
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Walking through the forest around the lake, repeating that beautiful line:

The friendless bodies of unburied men.

And the ever present wolf. And the echo in Dylan Thomas' "war on the spider and the wren."

Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1. A Churchyard:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.

The suicide of David Foster Wallace haunting the second line for a moment.  The archetype of acting: the actor holding the skull. The humor amidst the bones. Phrase: "my gorge rims at it." The vision of kissing the skull. And the image of the thing caked with make-up: who we are. And that last question: what becomes of the ruler of all the world?

Psalm 23, King James Bible:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This quiet piece as I am coming back to the beginning of my walk. Ducks dark on the water. Wondering about a shepherd, tending his herd. Prophecy of Jesus Christ. Puzzling over the translation that has a sheep eating at a table, being anointed with oil and having a cup. And furthermore, being the house of the Lord implied to be a slaughterhouse.  A curious psalm.

All three resonating strangely against each other as the night falls. Dead men unburied in the woods, the skull of a jester, David surrendering to a dark shepherd of a God.

I step towards the ducks to take a photograph. They all swim away from me.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


I began memory training in a rather naive, almost unconscious, manner: through music. Of course, when I was young, I learned ABCs from the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star melody. And that was just how I learned it. There was no question about it being learned without music. And the music is still there, I can hear it under my breath, if I am ever called upon to recite the ABCs (cf. Now I know my CBAs).

When I was in 6th grade, I heard a pop novelty song on the radio, "Life is a Rock but the Radio Rolled Me,"  that fascinated me with its rapid fire recitation of different music groups. I decided I wanted to be able to do that, more to impress my friends than for any other memorable reason. I started to write down all the words, then realized that I had actually almost memorized that song in the process through listening to the song over and over.

Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me) 
Paul DiFranco (music) and Norman Dolph (lyrics)

B.B. Bumble and the Stingers, Mott the Hoople, Ray Charles Singers
Lonnie Mack and twangin' Eddy, here's my ring we're goin' steady
Take it easy, take me higher, liar liar, house on fire
Locomotion, Poco, Passion, Deeper Purple, Satisfaction
Baby baby gotta gotta gimme gimme gettin' hotter
Sammy's cookin', Lesley Gore and Ritchie Valens, end of story
Mahavishnu, fujiyama, kama-sutra, rama-lama
Richard Perry, Spector, Barry, Archies, Righteous, Nilsson, Harry
Shimmy shimmy ko-ko bop and Fats is back and Finger Poppin' 
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
Gotta turn it up louder, so my DJ told me (whoa whoa whoa whoa)
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
At the end of my rainbow lies a golden oldie 
FM, AM, hits are clickin' while the clock is tock-a-tickin'
Friends and Romans, salutations, Brenda and the Tabulations
Carly Simon, I behold her, Rolling Stones and centerfoldin'
Johnny Cash and Johnny Rivers, can't stop now, I got the shivers
Mungo Jerry, Peter Peter Paul and Paul and Mary Mary
Dr. John the nightly tripper, Doris Day and Jack the Ripper
Gotta go Sir, gotta swelter, Leon Russell, Gimme Shelter
Miracles in smokey places, slide guitars and Fender basses
Mushroom omelet, Bonnie Bramlett, Wilson Pickett, stop and kick it 
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
Gotta turn it up louder, so my DJ told me (whoa whoa whoa whoa)
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
At the end of my rainbow lies a golden oldie 
Arthur Janov's primal screamin', Hawkins, Jay and
Dale and Ronnie, Kukla, Fran and Norma Okla
Denver, John and Osmond, Donny
JJ Cale and ZZ Top and LL Bean and De De Dinah
David Bowie, Steely Dan and sing me prouder, CC Rider
Edgar Winter, Joanie Sommers, Osmond Brothers, Johnny Thunders
Eric Clapton, pedal wah-wah, Stephen Foster, do-dah do-dah
Good Vibrations, Help Me Rhonda, Surfer Girl and Little Honda
Tighter, tighter, honey, honey, sugar, sugar, yummy, yummy
CBS and Warner Brothers RCA and all the others 
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
Gotta turn it up louder, so my DJ told me (whoa whoa whoa whoa)
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
At the end of my rainbow lies a golden oldie
Listen--remember, they're playing our song!
Rock it, sock it, Alan Freed me, Murray Kaufman, try to leave me
Fish, and Swim, and Boston Monkey,
Make it bad and play it funky.
(Wanna take you higher!)
Freddie King and Albert King And B.B. King and frolicking...

Melody plus rhythm work a magic spell in the brain that facilitates the ability to memorize a text to an extraordinary degree - even with the relatively monotonic delivery in the song.

Another example of monotonic memorization was the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag - which the entire class had to recite every morning in grade school. Our chorus of uninspired children's voices worked like music to make it so it took nothing to memorize the Pledge. We got so good at it that we could, like most schoolchildren, improvise our own nonsensical punny lyrics in the midst of the recitation.

The Pledge Of Allegiance 
by Francis Bellamy

I pledge allegiance to the Flag 
of the United States of America, 
and to the republic for which it stands, 
one Nation under God, indivisible, 
with liberty and justice for all.

became something like this for me:

The Fudge of a Sneeze Us

I fudge to sneeze us at the rag
of the poonited feces of Americuss
and to the re-dumb-lick which I can’t stand
butt naked under the dog that's invisible
with liver and dust lice for all

I have to admit that I actually thought for many years that the word was "invisible." Because God, as I understood it at the time, was invisible. Still every morning I would stand with the chorus and recite The Pledge. To this day, I still "know it by heart."

In 7th grade government class we had to be able to recite the Preamble to the Constitution from memory. And I just couldn't get it. Partly because the language was difficult for me: "establish Justice," "insure Tranquility," "provide Defense," "ordain this Constitution." I mean, the word "insure" was connected to my mother's car, in case she got into a wreck. I couldn't connect this to Tranquility, which was associated with a tranquilizer dart to me at the time. 

We the People of the United States, 
in Order to form a more perfect Union, 
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, 
provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, 
and secure the Blessings of Liberty 
to ourselves and our Posterity, 
do ordain and establish 
this Constitution for the United States of America.

And even though I had memorized the much more word-dense song with music the previous year, this piece of ponderous and serious prose seemed distant from any sort of musical adaptation. It was as if each word was on a bland block of wood. As I tried to memorize each phrase, I placed each block, one at a time, into a my "Box of Memory." Then I would concentrate on each word-block inside the box, saying the phrase it combined together to make a larger single block. Once I felt I the phrase had become its own unified block, I would move it into a larger box, deeper in my brain. I then began the process over with the next set of words that made up a phrase.

Most people try to memorize like this: analytically, dividing a thing into smaller elements. Each element is disconnected from the rest and the work is to burn it into the memory with brute repetition.


This is the most difficult way to memorize a sentence made of words. They might as well be in any order: states we united the people of the. And to emphasize the point, they might was well be numbers for letters: 2 3 6 2 3 6 6. There is no attempt to understand the connection between the "word-blocks." And with no connection, no understanding, no meaning, no music, it is extremely difficult to get the brain to hold on to it, to place it within the interior world of your mind and be able to remember it, to recognize and recall it whenever you need it.

Through the ages of evolution, the most successful species are those that have the best survival strategies. For humans, being able to remember and learn and not repeat past mistakes has obviously been critical. Furthermore, being able to invent sounds and symbols to express thought; being able to communicate it to another human being is what defines us as humans.

The cave entrance surrounded with bones might attract a curious exploration by some unfortunate early hominid. Then a bear comes out and eats him alive. And his friend, Grog, in the woods watches, helpless and in horror, as screams pierce his hearing and this huge monstrous bear rips his friend's flesh from his bones for what seems hours.

I like to imagine Grog inventing a sound that meant: "Do not go anywhere near that cave that is surrounded by bones!" Let's say that sound was: "Dah An Grrr!" And this sound is very meaningful to Grog. He saw what happened to his friend. And whenever Grog is hunting with anyone, he points out the cave and bones and says: 'Dah An Grrr!" And over time, everyone learns this sound and what it means regarding the cave. Then, eventually, some bright hominid philosopher figures he can also use that sound to point to the place where the beast will drop out of the tree and devour you. Soon enough, a small child is getting to close to the fire and it's mother cries: "Da an ger! Danger!"

Now, of course, this is a cartoonish example. But the point is that language stores meaningful memories. Each of us doesn't have to experience the occasion for the memory that the word contains - although with words like beautiful and love and ecstasy, we most certainly would like to.

Language is a mnemonic device for experience.

The word stands in stead of, in the place of, the thing, the experience. And Lo! Abstraction and the number 1 and everything from Shakespeare to 6 million people exterminated.

What is most amazing and relevant here is that we have the ability, through imagination and association, to make something memorable that the brain would not normally want to hang on to. The current record holder for memorizing the number of digits of Pi is Mr. Chao Lu from China who spent 24 hours and 4 minutes reciting Pi to 67,890 places. I can imagine a world where Mr. Chao Lu’s memory skills might be advantageous to survival, but it is certainly not this one. 

We remember what is most meaningful to our life. All too often, it is difficult for us to understand what is most meaningful. Through the practice of memory, our own meaning becomes more transparent to us, and we attain a vision into an inner world that was hidden to us before. 

So there I was in 7th grade with my word-blocks and my boxes of memory, trying to puzzle out all the pieces. And I was going about it in the most wrongheaded manner possible. Despite Mrs. McBride's best intentions, I didn't know what The Preamble meant. Why was I learning this? I didn't understand what I was doing. Every word seemed disconnected and meaningless. I was bored and uninterested.

My brain was waiting for a bear to come out of the cave or some sort of exciting mental event that meant it really needed to hold on to this information. My attention was like a dog waiting for me to throw the ball. But, contrary to most dogs, it needed to know that what I was shaking in front of it was worth going after. I needed to make it understand what The Preamble was saying was important; that it was, in fact, vital for me as a person living in the United States to have this preamble committed to memory. As it was, I sat there cutting the ball into little pieces and dropping them in a hole to be forgotten.

I eventually did memorize The Preamble. But not because of its intrinsic meaning. I memorized it because if I didn't, Mrs. McBride would give me a low grade and my parents would get mad at me. I memorized it because that was what all of us in the class had to do to get a good grade. We memorized it because we were told it was important. However, we didn't learned why it was important.

I loved Mrs. McBride and don't hold her to any fault at all. She was doing her job. Who amongst us would be able to explain the meaning of The Preamble to the Constitution and the rationale for memorizing it to a group of hormone addled, easily distracted 7th graders?

But this was the Great Failure of my education - from grade school up through the highest levels of the University: I was conditioned like Pavlov's Dog to learn what the teachers and professors taught, to memorize when needed. But I was rarely, if ever, taught to learn why. Why were the subjects I was being taught important or vital to my survival?

Why did what I was being "taught to learn" matter?


For example, what is so important about The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States?

Go back to Grog's sense of the word "Danger!" Anyone can see how important it is to understand and remember this word "Danger!" To not do so is to wander into a cave and be eaten alive by a bear. You feel it down to your bones, how important it is to know about "Danger!" You learn this word really quick and so vividly that it probably never will be forgotten.

These days are not so simple. And words now get chewed over in our speaking like a piece of meat that is never swallowed. Few words have the visceral immediacy of Grog's "Dah An Grrr!"

But in the right context, even the tiredest, most chewed-over, and bland word is given new life. Stare into another's face and quietly say, "I love you." Even if you don't, this most overused word in the English Language will get you a laugh or a slap or punch in the face. Context. Meaning.

I recently returned to The Preamble, to refresh my memory of it. And almost 40 years later, Mrs. McBride's sweet soul will be happy to know that I finally understand why we were taught to memorize it.

Christian Monotone

When I was younger, I had no idea what oppression and intolerance were. I came from a broken family and my mother worked as a teacher to support us. We were barely Middle Class. But this was Middle Class in the United States in the mid-1970s. We were white, lived in a nice rented house, had good food, plenty of clothes, a car, a television. Life was good. We had more freedom that we knew what to do with. A happy white middle class broken family in late 20th century U.S.A.. Life was good - even if I didn't know it was.

Being a regular kid, I didn't necessarily care much at the time, but I knew I could believe in anything. I had a vague sense of freedom to believe in whatever I wanted and the freedom to live according to those beliefs - as long as I didn't break any laws. I knew I had the freedom to say or write almost anything. I knew people could print and publish whatever they wanted - as long as it wasn't lies that would damage another person. I grew up with a vague awareness of these freedoms. I took it for granted. That was just how the world was, the way the world should be. I couldn't imagine a better way to live, to be... governed.

But the older I got, the more I became aware that most places aren't like the United States I grew up in - even the United States. I read about terrible oppression and intolerance towards others. In fact, the more I read, the more then entire history of man was long series of brutal acts of inhumanity and horror against other peoples. The 20th century alone revealed itself to be a slaughterhouse of horror.


When I was in 7th grade, struggling to care in the least bit about a preamble to a government document, millions were being killed in the Cambodian Killing Fields for what they believed in. Naturally, Mrs. McBride did not mention this to us. Although, I often wonder what such an education would have wrought as far as my character.

What is vivid today about The Preamble and the Constitution is how radical they are. They literally are revolutionary documents. They are a collection of words, sentences, statements which attempt to define and establish a new world. They are the embodiments of language that is attempting to ordain and establish a new way of living, new freedoms from the oppressions of past governance and freedoms for a future governance.


The Preamble, in it’s dignified and stately way, might be seen (cartoonishly), to be like Grog and all of his hominid family and friends standing out in front of the bear’s cave and yelling: I believe in these freedoms, and the way of life that insures and promotes them and I will no longer live in fear of you! 

We the People

The very first words conjure the defiant image of a group standing together, as a source of unified power, all with a common aim:

In order to form a more perfect union

More perfect understood not as an attempt of modify an absolute adjective, but as an admission that what brings the People together can be made better. This is what we are trying to do, to make better world to live in.

Establish justice

Justice as harmony. As the invisible hand that maintains equality. The impartial balance that makes certain the individual and the family, the family and the neighbors, the neighbors and the city, the city and the state, the state and the country, the country and the world - everything and all radiating foremost from the integrity and well-being of the individual - all of these elements must be in harmony to establish the conditions of Justice.

Insure domestic tranquility

The logic of the narrative flows from the essential happiness of each human, being who has come together with others to make a People, to create a better world, to make the union of themselves, their families, communities, cities and states all in harmony, to establish Justice, and then, from this Just ground, from these principles of harmony here established, to guarantee this harmony or peace, and protect this tranquility, this quietness of things.

Provide for the common defense

Once we, the People, have created this more perfect, just and tranquil place, we will protect and defend it against those forces which would threaten to harm or ruin it in any way.

Promote the general welfare

Only after we have provided to means to defend our way of life against external threats, can we begin to encourage and promote the well-being, the health and happiness, of ourselves, the People,

And secure the Blessings of Liberty

Above everything, we have come together, we are going through all of this and creating this new world, to make certain, always and forever, that we never lose our freedoms. To have the greatest freedom for the most people is at the essential core of all of why we have come together  to form this more perfect union. By doing this, we enter into a relationship with each other as unique entities and a relationship with that which our union has created, a whole which is greater than any single part, through which we are able to secure, to hold fast to, the natural benefits, grace and blessings of the greater idea of freedom, Liberty.

To ourselves and our Posterity

We, naturally, want this now and we also want, as stated above, to make sure our children and their children and so on also have these same blessings of Liberty.

Do ordain

We place these ideas, these statements of our most essential beliefs, in this way as they are related to each other, each arising out of and dependent upon the others, showing what is most important to how we wish to live our lives in this union.

and establish

These beliefs are cut into stone within our hearts. They are what we found our being upon, the foundation, the firmament upon which all building must rest. We set forth these beliefs in this manner.

this Constitution for the United States of America.

We are creating a new thing, a new body, a new world made up of these beliefs, whose construction, whose constitution, is to be made up of these elements and what follows.

Note the etymological echo inside of pre-amble: of a little walk, an amble, around the whole of the matter, like walking around a park, before going inside. Gives you an overall sense of where and what you are about to enter into.

Oddly, I was never into School House Rock. I think it was great. It just never appealed to me. Maybe it was just not the kind of song I wanted to remember The Preamble to. However, like the ABCs, I know many people that learned The Preamble in this way.

When I returned to The Preamble this year, even though I had memorized it well enough to recite it passingly in 7th grade, there were only fragments that remained. Something like this:

We the People of the United States of America... 
in order to... more perfect union... promote domestic tranquility
...establish Justice... blessings of liberty... 
establish this Constitution of the United States of America

The narrative was riddled with holes, added words, phrases in the wrong place, substitutions. I found this interesting.

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus explored the nature of forgetting. Using himself as a subject, he was able to plot a forgetting curve showing the decay of memory over time. A typical un-extraordinary memory tends to become diminished by half in about 5 to 7 days. However, he also found that the memory is not entirely forgotten, a trace of it remains. He suggested what is now almost commonplace: to have a better memory, you must create a better memory representation through mnemonic techniques and you must refresh the memory through repetition.

There are 52 words in the Preamble. I could recall about 32 words. Better than half and beating the Ebbinghaus Curve by far. Keep in mind, the Preamble sort of percolates through culture via political speeches, films and TV. You hear "more perfect union," "domestic tranquility" often as stock phrases of patriotism. And the sort of Homeric epithets of "Constitution of the United States of America" require no effort to bring to mind. So I would say my actual recall was closer to 19 words. Around 37%.

What I was interested in was what was in those lacuna of the Preamble and why my brain had consigned it to some interior oblivion. The most glaring error and, for some reason, difficult to correct was the substitution in the last phrase of "of" for "for." Not Constitution of the United States but Constitution for the United States. The first is what is used all the time, the latter is, mostly,  confined to the Preamble.

Here is what I left out (missing words in bold) or added [in brackets] or substituted* or in wrong postion#:

We the People of the United States [of America], 
in Order to form a more perfect Union, 
establish# Justice#, insure domestic# Tranquility, 
provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare
and secure the Blessings of Liberty 
to ourselves and our Posterity, 
do ordain and establish 
this Constitution for* the United States of America.

What my brain held on to, with a surprising tenacity of prehension, was pretty much what was to be expected: the basic meaning the message. Kudos to Mrs. McBride.

The subject: We

Prepositional phrase: in order to...(followed by a cascading series of secondary verbs)

Secondary verbs: form, establish, insure, provide, promote, secure,

Primary verbs: ordain and establish - the latter doing most of the work

Secondary objects:  union, justice, tranquility, defense, welfare, blessings

Primary object: this Constitution for the United States of America

The essence of the Preamble is:

We establish this Constitution.

Thankfully, my memory held on to that much and, although it is not much to look at, it is the essence of the thing. But what I left out was the beauty of it. The language that makes it "sing." Because there is a music here, a prose which aspires towards poetry and, when spoken, has a pleasing harmony. The cadences of the Preamble proceed with gravity and grace, layering upon each other like musical motifs, building to a inexorable conclusion that is underwritten not only with intellectual logic, but resonates with a deep emotional sense of rightness .


The Preamble is not the greatest passage of prose in human history, but it is one of them. And while it has an inherent beauty and force, it is the context of its creation that lifts it into greatness.

The overall effect, combined with  the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is symphonic. Beethoven's 5th, an embodiment of the sonata form, is the archetype.

The Declaration then becomes the 1st movement: Allegro Con Brio: fast, quick and bright with spirit, "fate knocking on the door," introducing the theme. Independence. Freedom from.

Tearing down the statue of King George III and melting it into musket balls.

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, c. 1859
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel

The Preamble is the 2nd movement: Andante con Moto: the strong and unwavering procession forward, the statement of the theme, the establishment of the exposition. After freedom from, there must be freedom for.

Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, moving forward, broken chains at her feet, in one hand, the torch of enlightenment, in the other, the Book of the Law. Freedom balanced with responsibility.


The Constitution is the 3rd movement: Scherzo. Allegro: the main play, matter, quick and bright, the statement of the supreme law of the United States. After the why (freedom from) of the Declaration and what (freedom for) of the Preamble, the Constitution is the how (to make these laws).

The allegorical figure of Justice, seated and blindfolded, with scales and sword.


The Bill of Rights is the 4th movement: Allegro: also quick and bright, the coda ("tail"), an extension of the main exposition, the Constitution, specific guarantees of individual rights and statements of limitations of the power of government.

A citizen of the United States with a foot on a king's crown, holding the Magna Carta as a weapon in his left hand and the Constitution open for all to read in the right hand.

The Law by Edwin Blashfield

Music and memory. The two examples at the beginning of this essay were chosen specifically becasue they were not particularly musical.

"Life is a Rock" (and, yes, I do wish that at that early and impressionable age I had chosen a more profound piece to imprint upon my memory), this litany of performers, groups and bands is delivered just slightly above a monotone. While the piece has rhythm and rhyme, there is no distinctive melody to it. Still I found it was relatively easy to memorize.

The Pledge of Allegiance also has a meter and a flow but no melody. Daily choral recitation, even with the cobwebs of sleep still in my head, imprinted it deep in my memory.

So the Preamble. You can put melody to it and end up with something like Schoolhouse Rock. But I don't want to have that strained and mundane melody always tied to my memory of the Preamble. I would be disinclined from ever taking it down from its place in the interior library of my memory and having that feverish song dance and jerk in my mind like a jack-in-the-box opening again and again. Certainly, adding melody to a passage of prose helps, almost magically, to memorize it. But care must be taken to not ruin the piece by combining it with trite and banal music.

With a lists such as the ABCs, the Presidents, signs of the Zodiac, elements in the periodic table, collections of poems and prose, use whatever melody you want. The list is just an indexing mechanism, a catalog, to order and organize placement of memory names, triggers, latches, keys to open doors to the actual body and matter of the main memory. There is no inherent music to a list or index.

However, there is music to poetry and, to a lesser extent, prose. Beautiful language has a musical quality to it, the recitation of the language is often melodious and unfolds with an undeniable harmony.

Poetry, naturally, is closer to music than prose. But many passages of prose, through the elevated beauty of the language, approach, sometimes even surpass, the qualities normally associated with poetry.

The Preamble to the Constitution is work of prose that most certainly aspires to poetry. It has a cadence and flow that make it musical. The presentation and exposition of the theme, with its cascading series of clauses and drumming patriotic finale create in the mind a harmonious unfolding of powerful intention and resonance with the most essential qualities of being human.

When I was younger, and struggled in the same humorous manner as Barney Fife to memorize the Preamble, I was unable to hear the inner music of the language. I also was, unfortunately, not interested in the historical context. No matter how hard Mrs. McBride tried to light the fire of learning in my young mind through her teaching, my lack of interest kept everything within my imagination waterlogged with boredom.

Out of fear of getting a bad grade, I forced myself to memorize the Preamble, like having my parents make me eat a plate of some vegetable I didn't like. I fought it the entire time with a fake smile on my face, tasting nothing, wanting only the throw it all back up as soon as possible.

Music is a mystery. Its meaning transcends all human being. Levi-Strauss believed melody to be the highest expression of human being. Where language hits a wall, music goes on for what seems ever.

Where words fail, music endures. Everyone, even "the savage beasts," finds solace and peace in music. When we listen to music, we engage our brains in most meaningful of all acts.

It is no wonder of it then: our brains remember music, this most meaningful experience, to an extraordinary and profound degree. We can hear a song once and repeat it note for note. We can recall as song after many years of not hearing it - and usually the surrounding world where we first heard it. We can recognize a song after only a few notes. This is an amazing ability. It is magical, weird and uncanny. Our natural ability to remember music is a gift, a mystery, without which, life would be a mistake.

My primary technique of memorization is to uncover the music within what I am trying to remember. The idea of uncovering is key. Poetry is easy. Prose is more difficult, but the music is there - as I hope I have shown with the Preamble.

Once you are able to uncover the music in a piece, memorization is no longer a difficult and laborious exercise, instead it becomes a joyful listening, a surrendering of self to profound meaning and a resonating harmonization of being to a transcendent beauty.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Three Criteria for the Memorization of a Poem

Space Object Box: "Little Bear, etc."
Joseph Cornell
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

"The cathedrals of today, wherever they are, are very unimposing, very unnoticeable. The boxes, the collages, the home movies of Joseph Cornell are the invisible cathedrals of our age. That is, they are almost invisible, as are all the best things that man can still find today: They are almost invisible, unless you look for them." 
- Jonas Mekas

It is important to ask yourself why you want to memorize a poem. To what end? 

I mean, what good does it do to know a poem by heart? To be able to close your eyes and conjure the poem back into the world whenever you wish?

I imagine those who might find the occasion to stand up in front of others and recite poetry. 

And I recommend this for everyone to try at least once. When I was first starting to memorize, I was fortunate enough to have been involved with a local poetry night. Every Monday, I stood up in front of several dozen people and recited a poem - almost always from memory. It is an entirely different animal to “speak a poem” from memory in the privacy of your own car or while walking dully along to “performing a poem” from memory before a gathering of expectant faces ready to hang upon your every stutter and stammer and misspoken word. 

There is a primal quality to performance where a deeper portion of the self is called upon to capture the imagination and attention of the group to resonate as an actor, a storyteller, a singer, a preacher, poet, rhapsode, dancer, witch-doctor, seer and shaman. It is an ancient drama. To stand in the circle outside of the fire and become possessed. It has been said that we call down the God not to ride them but to have the God ride us. 

Beyond the desire or need to perform a poem, what further rationale is there for memorizing a poem?

Before the mass production of books, McLuhan’s extensions of memory, the memorization of poems, drama, prose was a natural necessary and unquestioned aspect of any rudimentary education, essential in Classical Culture. In the Renaissance, it found new life in alchemical and esoteric pursuits. Matthew Arnold’s ideas of culture as the core European Humanism relied upon the “non-mechanical” memorization of great literature. Of course, memorization has always been crucial to the great religious traditions (pre-literate and post): Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.. 

But what now? After the storm, stress and technological revolutions of the 20th century, why memorize a poem? 

“At hand and by heart” now is the smart phone with all of the world’s knowledge. What need is there to memorize? 

Before everything, you must ask yourself why. 

Even though I flirted with the practice of memory all of my life, it wasn’t until certain family difficulties that I became serious about it. Initially, and still always as a grim and goading impetus, it was to set up structures within my mind that would serve as alarms to mental degeneration. 

However, it has become much more than that. Few activities in my life have been as transformative and catalyzing as the active practice of memory. I cannot recommend it more highly.

Whatever you determine you reasons to be, if you are serious, I here offer a few suggestions.

Camillo's Memory Theater 

"By the ancients thus it was custom that those same philosophers who taught and showed to dear disciples profound doctrines, having clearly declared them, would cover them with fables, so that the covers they made would keep the doctrines hidden: so that they would not be profaned."
- Giulio Camillo

What you want to look for in a poem are, at least, three essential criteria - each of them threaded through with the other:

1. A poem that you love. 

It MUST be a poem that you love, that you are passionate about. You have to lust after the poem.  

Anything that you want to memorize is a something that you burn to take into your most interior self, to weave it into the fabric of our being. 

To memorize something, to say it over and over, to recreate it within you, is to fall "under the spell" of the thing, it is to make it a part of the most internal, sacred and private language that you use to speak to yourself only. It will become part of the ur-language that constructs the process of your thinking. 

When you are searching for a text to memorize, look for that which you adore, that which excites you like nothing else, the want for another being's words inside your mind to transform your inner world. 

The beautiful quality about building your interior library is that there is such a wealth of poems, prayers, prose, speeches, laments, passages to choose from. 

Often I have a sense of being in Aladdin's Cave - such a plentitude of riches. 

Mostly, it is an issue of the moment. A phrase, a passage, speaks to me, to deeper part of me, and I want it. I desire it. The sexual implications are apt. There is a desire to merge one's self with the innermost aspects of being / thoughts of another, to work towards an ecstasy of understanding, Keat’s “negative capacity,” where the poem seems to live, gain new life, within you. The Holy Fire. Your mind bursts into flame. This is what you are looking for when you are looking for a poem to memorize. 

The Mnemosyne Atlas - Aby Warburg

[The Mnemosyne Atlas] is the strangest of art-historical artefacts: the kaleidoscopic image of the scholar’s enigmatic reordering of a lifetime’s meditation on the image. The Atlas, wrote Warburg, was ‘a ghost story for adults’: it invents a kind of phantomic science of the image, a ghost dance in which the most resonant gestures and expressions its creator had discovered in the course of his career return with a spooky insistence, suddenly cast into wholly new relationships.

2. A poem that bears repeated recitation. 

There are many that meet the first requirement simply out of a basic love for language, but fail to meet the second. 

You know that you will be saying, thinking, every word of the poem thousands and thousands of times. The poem will become a mantra, a prayer, and it’s language, every word, will be chewed over in your saying until it has no essence left and is just a flavorless cud ruminating in your mouth. It becomes a tired and a worn-out thing. 

But then, alchemical change occurs. You re-member, re-assemble, re-create the poem word by word: every article, noun, verb, adjective and adverb is no longer called into question. You know it by heart. 

And the meaning of it, the why of it, is born again with you as you speak the poem new from the heart of memory. It is a first rising sun to you, dawning for the first time, as you say it. It is, without exaggeration, a mystical experience. The poem, once again, quietly surpasses you.

To be able to place your mind, just for the 14 lines of a sonnet, into the starlike cauldron of Shakespeare, to have those words arise from the depths of your own being, as if they are your own, is the very definition of ecstasy. It is one of the most redemptive exercises for the sadness of this world that I know. 

On the other hand, as much as I enjoy (love seems odd here) much of, say, Sylvia Plath's poetry, I have no desire to memorize it (Poor Sylvia). I don't want to recite those words over and over again. The same could be said for Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. My respect for their poetry is undiminished. 

However, I could, and most likely will, memorize Shakespeare and Rilke until my dying day. Also, Yeats, Hopkins, Dickinson, Blake and Dylan Thomas. These are strange and idiosyncratic symptoms of my own history. 

You will find your own stars that you prefer to orbit as you add more poems to your interior library.

The Memory Machine is Libeskind's interpretation of Giulio Camillo's "Memory Theatre," a 16th-century structure where, upon entering, a person's mind would be filled and inscribed with a knowledge of the universe. Some historians have argued that Camillo's idea influenced the construction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which may or may not have been why Libeskind based his design on a period stage set apparatus. 
- Do Daniel Libeskind's Awesome Machines Mean I Have To Stop Hating His Work?

3. A poem must continually unfold its meaning. 

I consider this the quality that makes one poem great and another poem just remarkable. 

One of the qualities of beauty is strangeness and depth. With a good poem, you can "see the bottom." With a great poem, it is like looking into the ocean.

Shakespeare is obviously a deep and ever revealing ocean. He just unfolds over and over. It is like memorizing a fractal. The sonnets come immediately to mind. Soliloquies of Hamlet, Richard III, Lear and Prospero. Hopkins even through the delightful hedges of his rhyming wordplay always unfolds newly. Blake and Dickinson take the breath away with the depth of their Zen simplicity. Keats. Lorca. Yeats. Auden.

As a result of the practice of memory, I  believe it is often intially difficult to judge the depth of the poem from the "outside," that is, from an unmemorized position. 

There have been occasions where I have spent fair time committing a poem to memory then sensing, suddenly and not without a measure of sadness, it was “done.” 

I could “see around it” and all the way down the bottom of it. What was mysterious and attractive before is suddenly revealed as a thing somewhat banal and deceptively simple. Usually, for me, it is a clever piece or wit, shimmering with a gnomic simplicity, often times a joke in disguise. 

I am hesitant to cite example for fear of showing my hand, my guilty pleasures in the well-turned phrase, but Yeat’s Drinking Song, Crane’s In the Desert, much of Frost, bits and pieces of Auden. I made the mistake a lot at first, being greedy in Aladdin’s Cave, but have found over time I have become more discriminating in this regard. 

On the other hand, as I am working on this at the moment, Hopkins' sonnet, Carrion Comfort, with its halting negating language, words doubled, flipped and turned inside out until they form into a deeply meditative prayer of endurance, is a wonderful poem to memorize. 

I would go so far as to say, that it is only through memorizing this poem - being able to recite it to oneself and listen to the words recreated within you - that the inner meanings of the poem are revealed.

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.