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

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