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The Language


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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