How to Memorize A Poem
My first assignment was to begin collecting architecture. Before I could embark on any serious degree of memory training, I first needed a stockpile of memory palaces at my disposal. I went for walks around the neighborhood. I visited friends’ houses, the local playground, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. And I traveled back in time: to my high school, to my elementary school, to the house on Reno Road where my family lived until I was four years old. I focused on wallpaper and the arrangement of furniture. I tried to feel the flooring under my feet. I reminded myself of emotionally resonant incidents that occurred in each room. And then I carved each building up into loci that would serve as cubbyholes for my memories. The goal, as Ed explained it, was to know these buildings so thoroughly—to have such a rich and textured set of associations with every corner of every room—that when it came time to learn some new body of information, I could speed through my palaces, scattering images as quickly as I could sketch them in my imagination. The better I knew the buildings, and the more each felt like home, the stickier my images would be, and the easier it would be to reconstruct them later. Ed figured I’d need about a dozen memory palaces just to begin my training. He has several hundred, a metropolis of mental storehouses.
At this point, out of full disclosure, I ought to say a word or two about my living arrangements at the time that I began my dalliance with memory training. I was a recent college grad trying to make it as a journalist, sponging off my parents in the home in Washington, D.C., where I’d grown up. I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom with a pair of Baltimore Orioles pennants above the window and a book of Shel Silverstein’s poems on the shelf, and working in a makeshift office in the basement, at a desk I’d set up between my father’s Nordic Track and a stack of boxes filled with old family photos.
My office was awash in Post-it notes, and long lists of items I needed to catch up on: calls to be returned, article ideas to be investigated, personal and professional chores to be completed. Fortified with confidence from my successes in Central Park, I tore down a handful of the most urgent items, converted them into images, and diligently filed them away in a memory palace I had constructed out of my grandmother’s suburban ranch home. “Get car inspected” became an image of Inspector Gadget circling the old Buick in her driveway. “Find book on African kings” was an occasion to imagine Shaka Zulu hurling a spear at her front door. “Book Phoenix ticket” led me to transform her living room into a landscape of desert and canyons, and to picture a phoenix rising from the ashes of her antique credenza. This was all well and good, and even kind of fun, but it was also exhausting. I noticed, upon memorizing ten or so of my Post-it notes, that I felt physically tired, like my mind’s eye was getting bloodshot. This was harder work than it seemed, and much less efficient than I’d imagined. And there were still a few items on the wall I had no clue what to do with. How was I supposed to turn telephone numbers into images? What was I supposed to do with e-mail addresses? I fell back into my office chair with a handful of Post-its clinging to my palm and looked up at my wall, whose off-white paint now showed through in a few additional patches, and wondered what, really, was the point of all this. In truth, those notes had been working just fine stuck to my wall. Surely the art of memory had more valuable applications.
I stood up and pulled a copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry off my bookshelf. It was an 1,800-page brick of a book that I had purchased once upon a time at a used bookstore and had opened not more than twice since. If the ancient art of memory was good for anything, I figured, surely it was learning poetry by heart. Simonides, I knew, was not a hero of the ancient world for having discovered a clever way to remember his to-do lists. His discovery was meant to serve a humanizing agenda. And what could be more humanizing than committing poetry to memory?
Ed, I had already discovered, was always memorizing something. He had long ago learned the bulk of Paradise Lost by heart (at the rate of two hundred lines per hour, he told me), and had been slowly slogging his way through Shakespeare. “My philosophy of life is that a heroic person should be able to withstand about ten years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed,” he said. “Given that an hour of memorization yields about ten solid minutes of spoken poetry, and those ten minutes have enough content to keep you busy for a full day, I figure you can squeeze at least a day’s fun out of each hour of memorization—if you should ever happen to find yourself in solitary confinement.”
This worldview owes a lot to the collection of ancient and medieval texts on memory that Ed had relentlessly tried to foist upon me. For those early writers, a trained memory wasn’t just about gaining easy access to information; it was about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person. A trained memory was the key to cultivating “judgment, citizenship, and piety.” What one memorized helped shape one’s character. Just as the secret to becoming a chess grand master was to learn old games, the secret to becoming a grand master of life was to learn old texts. In a tight spot, where could one look for guidance about how to act, if not the depths of memory? Mere reading is not necessarily learning—a fact that I am personally confronted with every time I try to remember the contents of a book I’ve just put down. To really learn a text, one had to memorize it. As the early-eighteenth-century Dutch poet Jan Luyken put it, “One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax / Is worth a thousand in the stacks.”
The ancient and medieval way of reading was totally different from how we read today. One didn’t just memorize texts; one ruminated on them—chewed them up and regurgitated them like cud—and in the process, became intimate with them in a way that made them one’s own. As Petrarch said in a letter to a friend, “I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I swallowed as a boy what I would ruminate upon as an older man. I have thoroughly absorbed these writings, implanting them not only in my memory but in my marrow.” Augustine was said to be so steeped in the Psalms that they, as much as Latin itself, comprised the principle language in which he wrote.
This was an attractive fantasy: I imagined that if I could only learn to memorize like Simonides, I would be able to commit reams of poetry to heart. I could make a clean sweep through the best verse and really absorb it. I imagined becoming one of those admirable (if sometimes insufferable) individuals who always seem to have an apposite quotation to drop into conversation. I imagined becoming a walking repository of verse.
I decided to make memorizing a part of my daily routine. Like flossing. Except I was actually going to do it. Each morning, after waking up and having my coffee, but before reading the newspaper or showering or even putting on proper clothes, I sat down behind my desk and tried to spend ten to fifteen minutes working through a poem.
The problem was that I wasn’t any good at it. When I sat down and tried to fill a memory palace with Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” a twenty-eight-line poem composed almost entirely of nonsense words, I couldn’t figure out how to transform the “brillig” and “slithy toves” into images, and ended up just memorizing the poem by rote, which was exactly what I wasn’t supposed to be doing. Next I tried T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem I’d always adored, and which I already knew in bits and pieces. “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” How could I forget that? Or rather, how was I supposed to remember it? Was I meant to put an image of women, coming and going, speaking of Michelangelo in my uncle’s bathroom? And what was that supposed to look like? Or was I supposed to form an image of women, an image of coming, an image of going, and an image of Michelangelo? I was confused. And this was taking forever. These memory techniques, which had seemed so promising while I’d huddled numb-fingered with Ed on a boulder in Central Park, weren’t working out nearly so well now that I was alone in my parents’ basement. I felt like I had tried on a slick pair of sneakers at the store, and now that I’d worn them home, I had blisters. Clearly I was missing something.
I turned to my newly acquired copy of the Rhetorica ad Herennium and opened to the section that discusses the memorization of words. I was hoping it might offer some hints as to why I was failing so badly, but all the two-thousand-year-old book could provide was consolation. Memorizing poetry and prose is extraordinarily difficult, the author willingly concedes. But that’s exactly the point. He explains that learning texts is worth doing not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. “I believe that they who wish to do easy things without trouble and toil must previously have been trained in more difficult things,” he writes.
Having begun to futz around with memory techniques, I didn’t yet have any sense of the true scope of the enterprise I was embarking upon. I still thought of my project as a harmlessly casual experiment. All I wanted to know was whether I really could improve my memory, and, if so, by how much. I certainly hadn’t taken Tony Buzan’s challenge to try to compete in the U.S. Memory Championship seriously. After all, there were more than three dozen American mental athletes who trained each year for the event, which takes place every March in New York City. There was no reason to think a journalist who occasionally forgets his own Social Security number could compete against America’s top memory geeks. But, as I would soon learn, Americans on the international memory circuit are like Jamaicans on the international bobsledding circuit—easily the most laid-back folks at any competition, and possibly even the most stylish, but on the international stage, we are behind the curve in terms of both technique and training.
Even though the best American mnemonists can memorize hundreds of random digits in an hour, U.S. records still pale in comparison to those of the Europeans. Generally, nobody in North America takes memory sport seriously enough to stop drinking three months before the world championship, like the eight-time world memory champ Dominic O’Brien used to do, and from the looks of it, few competitors engage in the rigorous physical training regimen that Buzan recommends. (One of his first, unsolicited pieces of advice to me was to get in shape.) Nobody downs daily glasses of cod liver oil or takes omega-3 supplements. Only one American, the four-time national champion Scott Hagwood, has ever been inducted into the KL7.
Even though America has run its national memory championship for as long as any country in the world, the best American memorizer has only finished in the top five of the world championship once, in 1999. Perhaps it says something about our national character that America has produced none of the world’s best competitive memorizers—that we’re not as detail-obsessed as the Germans, as punctilious as the Brits, or as driven as the Malaysians. Or maybe, as one European soberly suggested to me, Americans have impoverished memories because we are preoccupied with the future, while folks on the other side of the Atlantic are more concerned with the past. Whatever the reason, it became clear that if I wanted to learn more about the art of memory—if I wanted to study with the best in the world—I was going to have to go to Europe.
Having spent several weeks struggling with mixed success to furnish my memory palaces with poetry, I thought it time to enlist some help in order to take my efforts to the next level. The granddaddy of events on the yearlong international memory circuit, the World Memory Championship, was going to be held in Oxford, England, at the end of the summer. I decided I needed to go, and convinced Discover magazine to send me to write an article about the competition. I called up Ed to ask if I could crash at his place. Oxford was his home turf—where he’d grown up, gone to college, and now lived at home with his parents on their country estate located on the town’s outskirts, in a seventeenth-century stone house called the Mill Farm.
When I arrived at the Mill Farm (or simply “the Milf,” as Ed sometimes referred to it) on a sunny summer afternoon a few days before the World Memory Championship, Ed greeted me and carried my bags up to his bedroom, the same one he grew up in, with clothes scattered about the floor and nine decades of cricket almanacs on his bookshelves. Then he took me into the house’s oldest wing, a fourhundred-year-old converted stone barn linked to the kitchen. There was a piano in the corner and colorful fabrics draped from the ceiling, the remnants of a party held years ago that were never taken down. At one end of the room was a long wooden table with eight decks of playing cards arranged at the head.
“This is where I practice,” Ed said, and pointed to a balcony that jutted into the upper part of the barn. “Images of binary digits come pouring down those stairs over there, right across the room. This is exactly where you’d expect a memory champ to exercise, isn’t it?”
Before dinner, an old childhood friend of Ed’s named Timmy stopped by to say hello. Ed and I came downstairs to find him at the table chatting with Ed’s mother and father, Teen and Rod, while his youngest sister, Phoebe, chopped vegetables from the garden at the kitchen island. Timmy now ran an online application development company. He had driven over in a BMW, wore a crisp polo shirt, and had a warm tan.
Teen introduced me and explained, with a wry laugh, that Ed was my memory coach. Timmy seemed not to believe that Ed was still toying with all this memory stuff. Hadn’t it been quite some time since he’d taken that crazy trip to Kuala Lumpur?
“Edward, are you at all nervous that your new student will surpass you?” asked Teen, mostly it seemed for the sake of ribbing her son.
“I don’t think anyone needs to be too concerned about that,” I said.
“Well, I think it’d strike a tremendous blow for education,” said Ed proudly.
“Do you think you could give Ed a nine-to-five job?” Rod asked Timmy.
Ed laughed. “Yes, you know, maybe I could give memory training courses to your employees.”
“You could do programming,” offered Teen.
“I don’t know how to program.”
“Your father could teach you.”
Rod made a small fortune in the 1990s designing computer software, and retired at an early age to a life of leisure and eccentric pursuits. He is a practicing apiarist and gardener and would like to take the Mill Farm off the electrical grid by exercising his ancient water rights and installing a hydroelectric generator in the creek that runs by the house. Teen teaches developmentally disabled kids at a local school and is an avid reader and tennis player. She is mostly tolerant of Ed’s eccentricities, but also cautiously hopeful that Ed might someday direct his considerable talents in a more focused, and perhaps even socially useful, direction.
“What about the law, Edward?” she asked.
“I consider the law to be a zero-sum game, and therefore a pointless use of a life,” said Ed. “Being good at being a lawyer means merely, on average, maximizing injustice.” Ed leaned over to me. “I used to be quite a promising young man when I was eighteen.”
This prompted Phoebe to chime in: “More like thirteen.”
While Ed was in the bathroom, I asked Rod if he would be disappointed if his son ended up becoming the next Tony Buzan, a fantastically wealthy self-help guru. Rod pondered the question for a few seconds and stroked his chin. “I think I’d prefer if he became a barrister.”
The next morning, at the examination hall at Oxford University, which was hosting the world’s finest mnemonists, Ed was sprawled out across a leather sofa, wearing a bright yellow cap and a T-shirt with the words “Ed Kicks Ass—220” emblazoned in bold letters across his chest, above a menacing ironed-on photograph of himself, a cartoon of a karate kick, and a photograph of thonged female hindquarters. (In addition to communicating an intimidating bit of trash talk to his opponents, he explained, those three words, “Ed Kicks Ass,” are a mnemonic that helps him remember the number 220.) He was smoking a cigarette (he doesn’t take the physical training part of the sport too seriously), and warmly greeting each of the competitors as they strolled through the door. He informed me that since we’d last seen each other, he’d taken an indefinite leave of absence from his PhD program in Paris to pursue “other projects.” He also told me that his and Lukas’s big plans for the Oxford Mind Academy had been temporarily derailed when, not long after the U.S. championship, Lukas badly seared his lungs in a fire-breathing stunt gone wrong.
Memory championships can be pathologically competitive events, and Ed described his vanity T-shirt as part of a “campaign of pretend intimidation” with the aim of “generally upping the quality of banter between competitors—especially with the Germans.” To that end, he had showed up at the championship bearing copies of a cheeky onepage stats sheet that he was handing out to the press and fellow competitors. It described his character (in the third person)—“Irreverent, flamboyant, ready for anything (especially yesterday)”—and his training regime—“Early Rise, Yoga, Skipping, Superfoods (including blueberries and cod liver oil), Four-hours training, two glasses of wine per day (from the potassium rich soil of the Languedoc-Roussillon in Southern France), 30 minutes reflection period at sunset each evening, keeping a journal online.” It noted that his “unique abilities” include lucid dreaming and tantric sex. It also described Tony Buzan as “a champion ball-room dancer and a mentor for me throughout puberty,” and his thoughts on the future of competitive memory: “Hoping it will be an Olympic sport before 2020,” when he is “planning to retire to a life of synaesthesia and senility.” His plans for after the championship: “Revolutionizing Western Education.”
Sitting on the couch next to him was the legendary world memory champion Ben Pridmore, a man who until that moment I had known only through Google and myth. (I had heard he could memorize playing cards as fast as he could turn them over.) Ben wore a worn-out “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” Dr. Seuss T-shirt with a badly stretched collar, and a fanny pack. He was also sporting an enormous wide-brimmed black Australian steer-hide undertaker’s hat that he professed to have worn every day for the last six years. “It’s my gimmick,” he said softly. “It’s part of my soul.” At his feet there sat a pink and black backpack with the words “Pump It Up” graffitied on the back. He informed us that there were twenty-two decks of playing cards inside, which he intended to memorize the next day in a single hour.
With his bald head, dark beard, face-swallowing glasses, and wide, searching eyes, Ben seemed almost like a figure out of an R. Crumb cartoon. He even had the same shrugged shoulders and loopy strut. The soles of his tattered leather shoes slapped under his feet like flip-flops. He spoke with a gentle, slightly nasal Yorkshire accent, which turned “my” into “me.” “I hate me voice,” he said when explaining why he’d been so cagey about returning my phone calls during the previous weeks. One of the first pieces of information about himself that he shared with me was that he believed he was England’s youngest college dropout. “I was admitted to Kingston on Thames University when I was seventeen, but I dropped out after six months. Now I’m twenty-eight, which is a bit depressing. I’m starting to feel like the old man of memory sports. You know, I was one of the hot newcomers once.”
Bad luck does seem to stalk Ben. He’d had no intentions of being at the World Memory Championship. Instead, he had devoted the last six months to memorizing the first 50,000 digits of the mathematical constant pi, which he planned to recite at the Mind Sports Olympiad, a weeklong festival of board games to be held a week after the World Memory Championship. It would have been a new world record. But an obscure Japanese mnemonist named Akira Haraguchi had emerged from nowhere to memorize 83,431 digits just a month earlier. It took him sixteen hours and twenty-eight minutes to recite them. Ben read about the accomplishment on the Internet and was forced to reevaluate his plans. Instead of trying to learn another 33,432 digits, he gave up and rededicated himself to defending his title as world memory champion. He had spent virtually every free moment of the last six weeks cleaning out memory palaces that had been devoted to pi, undoing months of hard work so that he could reuse the palaces in the memory championships.
Most of the mental athletes on the memory circuit came to the sport the same way I did: They once saw someone perform an outrageous memory stunt, thought it was cool, learned the trick behind it, and then went home and tried it themselves. But Ben missed one critical step. He’d seen someone memorizing playing cards and thought it was cool, and went home and tried it himself. But nobody ever told him how it was done. Without using any techniques at all, he just stared at the cards over and over again until they’d become imprinted on his brain. And the amazing thing is, he kept doing this in his spare time for several months, under the assumption that eventually he’d surely get good at it. He finally got his time down to fifteen minutes using pure rote memorization, a feat in many ways more impressive than his world record time of thirty-two seconds using techniques. It wasn’t until he showed up at his first World Memory Championship in 2000 that he found out about the memory palace. After the first day of events wrapped up (he finished near last place), he went to a bookstore, bought one of Tony Buzan’s books, decided this was something he had a talent for, and forgot about all of his other extracurricular interests, including his lifelong quest to watch every one of the 1,001 theatrically released Warner Bros. cartoons made between 1930 and 1968.
Ben had been working on a book called “How to Be Clever,” which teaches readers how to calculate the day of the week for any date in history, how to memorize a deck of cards, and how to scam an IQ test. “The book is about making people think you’re brainy without actually increasing your intelligence,” he told me. “The problem is I haven’t written very much because I always have more important things to do, like watch cartoons. If I tried to write a serious book on how to improve your life, I’d be rubbish at it, because I haven’t got the faintest idea how to improve my life.”
The favorite to take Ben’s title at the world championship was Dr. Gunther Karsten, the balding, angular forty-three-year-old godfather of German memory sport, who had won every German national contest since 1998. Gunther showed up wearing what I learned is his standard uniform: an imposing pair of black earmuffs and metallic sunglasses whose insides have been completely taped over except for two small pinholes. “Extraneous stimuli,” as Gunther calls them, are the memorizer’s bête noir. (A retired Danish mnemonist used to compete wearing horse blinders.) He also wore a gold belt buckle embossed with his initials, a gold chain over his tight white T-shirt, and black sailor pants that flared at the bottom. Gunther informed me that in college he was a photo model for Nissan cars, and depending on how you squinted, he looked like the villain in a James Bond movie or an aging figure skater. He was in terrific physical shape, and was, I would soon learn, a fierce competitor. Despite the fact that one of his legs is slightly shorter than the other (from a childhood bone disease), he regularly races in—and wins—track events for middle-aged men. He was carrying around with him a locked, shiny metal suitcase filled with between twenty and thirty decks of playing cards, which he planned to memorize. He wouldn’t tell me the exact number for fear it would get back to Ben Pridmore.
The actual competition took place in a large oak-paneled room in one of Oxford’s storied old buildings, with tall Gothic windows and oversize portraits of the third Earl of Litchfield and the fourteenth Earl of Derby. The room was arranged no differently than it had been during the school year, when it was used to administer exams to Oxford undergraduates. There were four dozen desks, each of which had a six-inch-tall digital stopwatch clamped to it, which would be used for the last and most exciting event of the contest, speed cards, when the competitors race to commit a single deck of playing cards to memory as fast as possible.
Unlike the U.S. championship, which has just five events, none lasting longer than fifteen minutes, the World Memory Championship is frequently referred to as a “mental decathlon.” Its ten events, called “disciplines,” span three grueling days, and each tests the competitors’ memories in a slightly different way. Contestants have to memorize a previously unpublished poem spanning several pages, pages of random words (record: 280 in fifteen minutes), lists of binary digits (record: 4,140 in thirty minutes), shuffled decks of playing cards, a list of historical dates, and names and faces. Some disciplines, called “speed events,” test how much the contestants can memorize in five minutes (record: 405 digits). Two marathon disciplines test how many decks of cards and random digits they can memorize in an hour (records: 2,080 digits and 27 decks of cards).
The first World Memory Championship was held at the posh Athenaeum Club in London in 1991. “I thought, this is insane,” recalls Tony Buzan. “We have crossword championships. We have Scrabble championships. We have chess, bridge, poker, draughts, canasta, and Go championships. We have science fair championships. And for the biggest, the most fundamental of all human cognitive processes, memory, there’s no championship.” He also knew that the idea of a “world memory champion” would be an irresistible draw for the media, and a savvy way to promote his books on mind training.
With the help of his friend Raymond Keene, a British chess grand master who writes the daily chess column for The Times (London), Buzan sent out letters to a handful of people who he knew were involved in memory training, and ran an ad in The Times advertising the contest. Seven people showed up, including a psychiatric nurse named Creighton Carvello who had memorized the telephone number of every Smith in the Middlesbrough phonebook and another person named Bruce Balmer who had set a record for memorizing two thousand foreign words in a single day. Several of the competitors wore tuxedoes.
The contestants no longer adhere to such a strict dress code, but everything else about the championship has gotten far more serious since 1991. What began as a one-day contest has now expanded to fill an entire weekend. Of all the disciplines in a three-day memory decathlon, the first one of the first day, the poem, is the most universally dreaded. Because of my own faltering efforts to memorize poetry, it was the one event that I wanted to watch most closely. Every year Gunther lobbies to have the event stricken from the contest, or at least replaced with rules that are more—as he puts it—“objective.” But poetry is where memorization began, and to cut it from the championship because a few of the competitors find it difficult would run counter to the competition’s underlying premise that memorization is a creative and humanizing endeavor. So every year, a new, previously unpublished poem is commissioned for the world championship. For the first few years of the competition, in the early nineties, the poem was written by the British poet laureate Ted Hughes, whom Tony Buzan describes as “an old friend.” Since Hughes’s death in 1998, the poem has been written by Buzan himself. This year’s 108-line free-verse offering, titled “Miserare,” came from a collection titled “Requiem for Ted.” It began:
With most things in the Universe
I am happy:
The Horse Head Nebula
The light-years-big clouds
That are the Womb of Stars
It went on to list the many things Tony Buzan was happy about, including “God’s freezing balls,” and ended:
I am not happy
The competitors had fifteen minutes to memorize as many lines as possible, and then a half hour to write them on a blank sheet of paper. In order to receive full credit for a line, it had to be rendered perfectly, down to each capital letter and punctuation mark. Competitors who failed to underscore just how “not happy” the author was or who mistakenly thought that Ted was “dead” without a capital D would get only half the total points for that line.
The question of how best to memorize a piece of text, or a speech, has vexed mnemonists for millennia. The earliest memory treatises described two types of recollection: memoria rerum and memoria verborum, memory for things and memory for words. When approaching a text or a speech, one could try to remember the gist, or one could try to remember verbatim. The Roman rhetoric teacher Quintilian looked down on memoria verborum on the grounds that creating such a vast number of images was not only inefficient, since it would require a gargantuan memory palace, but also unstable. If your memory for a speech hinged on knowing every word, then not only did you have a lot more to remember, but if you forgot a single word, you could end up trapped in a room of your memory palace staring at a blank wall, lost and unable to move on.
Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestige from the art of memory.)
Perfect recall of words is something our brains simply aren’t very good at, a fact famously illustrated in the congressional Watergate hearings of 1973. In his testimony before the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee, President Richard Nixon’s counsel John Dean reported to the congressmen on the contents of dozens of meetings related to the cover-up of the break-in. To the president’s chagrin and the committee’s delight, Dean was able to repeat verbatim many conversations that had taken place in the Oval Office. His recollections were so detailed and seemingly so precise that reporters took to calling him “the human tape recorder.” At the time, it hadn’t yet been revealed that there had been an actual tape recorder in the Oval Office recording the conversations that Dean had reconstructed from memory.
While the rest of the country took note of the political implications of those tape recordings, the psychologist Ulric Neisser saw them as a valuable data trove. Neisser compared the transcripts of the recordings with Dean’s testimony, and analyzed what Dean’s memory got right and what it got wrong. Not only did Dean not remember specific quotes correctly—that is to say, verborum—he often didn’t even properly remember the gist of what had been discussed—rerum. But even when his memories were wrong in isolated episodes, notes Neisser, “there is a sense in which he was altogether right.” The major themes of his testimony were all accurate: “Nixon wanted the cover-up to succeed; he was pleased when it went well; he was troubled when it began to unravel; he was perfectly willing to consider illegal activities if they would extend his power or confound his enemies.” John Dean did not misrepresent, argues Neisser; he did get the details wrong, but he got the important stuff right. We all do the same thing when we try to recount conversations, because without special training our memories tend to only pay attention to the big picture.
It makes sense that our brains would work like that. The brain is a costly organ. Though it accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s mass, it uses up a fifth of all the oxygen we breathe, and it’s where a quarter of all our glucose gets burned. The brain is the most energetically expensive piece of equipment in our body, and has been ruthlessly honed by natural selection to be efficient at the tasks for which it evolved. One might say that the whole point of our nervous system, from the sensory organs that feed information to the glob of neurons that interprets it, is to develop a sense of what is happening in the present and what will happen in the future, so that we can respond in the best possible way. Strip away the emotions, the philosophizing, the neuroses, and the dreams, and our brains, in the most reductive sense, are fundamentally prediction and planning machines. And to work efficiently, they have to find order in the chaos of possible memories. From the vast amounts of data pouring in through the senses, our brains must quickly sift out which information is likely to have some bearing on the future, attend to that, and ignore the noise. Much of the chaos that our brains filter out is words, because more often than not, the actual language that conveys an idea is just window dressing. What matters is the res, the meaning of those words. And that’s what our brains are so good at remembering. In real life, it’s rare that anyone is asked to recall ad verbum outside of congressional depositions and the poetry event at an international memory competition.
Until the last tick of history’s clock, cultural transmission meant oral transmission, and poetry, passed from mouth to ear, was the principle medium of moving information across space and from one generation to the next. Oral poetry was not simply a way of telling lovely or important stories, or of flexing the imagination. It was, argues the classicist Eric Havelock, “a massive repository of useful knowledge, a sort of encyclopedia of ethics, politics, history, and technology which the effective citizen was required to learn as the core of his educational equipment.” The great oral works transmitted a shared cultural heritage, held in common not on bookshelves, but in brains.
Professional memorizers have existed in oral cultures throughout the world to transmit that heritage through the generations. In India, an entire class of priests was charged with memorizing the Vedas with perfect fidelity. In pre-Islamic Arabia, people known as Rawis were often attached to poets as official memorizers. The Buddha’s teachings were passed down in an unbroken chain of oral tradition for four centuries until they were committed to writing in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C. And for centuries, a group of hired tape recorders called tannaim (literally, “reciters”) memorized the oral law on behalf of the Jewish community.
The most famous of the Western tradition’s oral works, and the first to have been systematically studied, were Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. These two poems—possibly the first to have been written down in the Greek alphabet—had long been held up as literary archetypes. However, even as they were celebrated as the models to which all literature should aspire, Homer’s masterworks had also long been the source of scholarly unease. The earliest modern critics sensed that they were somehow qualitatively different from everything that came after—even a little strange. For one thing, both poems were oddly repetitive in the way they referred to characters. Odysseus was always “clever Odysseus.” Dawn was always “rosy-fingered.” Why would someone write like that? Sometimes the epithets seemed completely off-key. Why call the murderer of Agamemnon “blameless Aegisthos”? Why refer to “swift-footed Achilles” even when he was sitting down? Or to “laughing Aphrodite” even when she was in tears? In terms of both structure and theme, the Odyssey and Iliad were also oddly formulaic, to the point of predictability. The same narrative units—gathering armies, heroic shields, challenges between rivals—pop up again and again, only with different characters and different circumstances. In the context of such finely spun, deliberate masterpieces, these quirks seemed hard to explain.
At the heart of the unease about these earliest works of literature were two fundamental questions: First, how could Greek literature have been born ex nihilo with two masterpieces? Surely a few less perfect stories must have come before, and yet these two were among the first on record. And second, who exactly was their author? Or was it authors? There were no historical records of Homer, and no trustworthy biography of the man exists beyond a few self-referential hints embedded in the texts themselves.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the first modern critics to suggest that Homer might not have been an author in the contemporary sense of a single person who sat down and wrote a story and then published it for others to read. In his 1781 Essay on the Origin of Languages, the Swiss philosopher suggested that the Odyssey and Iliad might have been “written only in men’s memories. Somewhat later they were laboriously collected in writing”—though that was about as far as his inquiry into the matter went. Also writing in the eighteenth century, an English diplomat and archaeologist named Robert Wood suggested that Homer was illiterate, and that his works had to have been committed to memory. It was a revolutionary theory, but Wood couldn’t back it up with a hypothesis that explained how Homer might have pulled off such an astounding mnemonic feat.
In 1795, the German philologist Friedrich August Wolf argued for the first time that not only were Homer’s works not written down by Homer, but they also weren’t even by Homer. They were, rather, a loose collection of songs transmitted by generations of Greek bards, and only redacted in their present written form at some later date.
In 1920, an eighteen-year-old scholar named Milman Parry took up the question of Homeric authorship as his master’s thesis at the University of California, Berkeley. He suggested that the reason Homer’s epics seemed unlike other literature was because they were unlike other literature. Parry had discovered what Wood and Wolf had missed: the evidence that the poems had been transmitted orally was right there in the text itself. All those stylistic quirks, including the formulaic and recurring plot elements and the bizarrely repetitive epithets—“clever Odysseus” and “gray-eyed Athena”—that had always perplexed readers were actually like thumbprints left by a potter: material evidence of how the poems had been crafted. They were mnemonic aids that helped the bard(s) fit the meter and pattern of the line, and remember the essence of the poems. The greatest author of antiquity was actually, Parry argued, just “one of a long tradition of oral poets that ... composed wholly without the aid of writing.”
Parry realized that if you were setting out to create memorable poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad were exactly the kinds of poems you’d create. It’s said that clichés are the worst sin a writer can commit, but to an oral bard, they were essential. The very reason that clichés so easily seep into our speech and writing—their insidious memorability—is exactly why they played such an important role in oral storytelling. And the Odyssey and Iliad, excuse the cliché, are riddled with them. In a culture dependent on memory, it’s critical, in the words of Walter Ong, that people “think memorable thoughts.” The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized. The principles that the oral bards discovered, as they sharpened their stories through telling and retelling, were the same basic mnemonic principles that psychologists rediscovered when they began conducting their first scientific experiments on memory around the turn of the twentieth century: Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don’t; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images; alliteration aids memory. A striped skunk making a slam dunk is a stickier thought than a patterned mustelid engaging in athletic activity.
The most useful of all the mnemonic tricks employed by the bards was song. As anyone who has ever found himself chanting “By Mennen!” can attest, if you can turn a set of words into a jingle, they can become exceedingly difficult to knock out of your head.
Finding patterns and structure in information is how our brains extract meaning from the world, and putting words to music and rhyme are a way of adding extra levels of pattern and structure to language. It’s the reason Homeric bards sang their epic oral poems, the reason that the Torah is marked up with little musical notations, and the reason we teach kids the alphabet in a song and not as twenty-six individual letters. Song is the ultimate structuring device for language.
After moving to Harvard and becoming an assistant professor, Parry took an unconventional turn in his work. Rather than hunkering down with old Greek texts, the young classicist took off for Yugoslavia in search of the last bards who still practiced a form of oral poetry resembling the Homeric arts. He returned to Cambridge with thousands of recordings that formed the basis for a new branch of academic research into oral traditions.
In his fieldwork, Parry found that rather than transmitting the text itself from bard to bard and generation to generation, the contemporary Balkan rhapsodists (presumably like their ancient Homeric predecessors) would impart a set of formulaic rules and constraints that allowed the bard—any bard—to reconstruct the poem each time he recited it. Each retelling of the story was not exactly like the one that came before, but it was close.
When the Slavic bards were asked whether they repeated their songs exactly, they responded, “Word for word, and line for line.” And yet when recordings of two performances were held up against each other, they clearly were different. Words changed, lines moved around, passages disappeared. The Slavic bards weren’t being overconfident; they simply had no concept of verbatim recall. Not that this should have been surprising. Without writing, there is no way to check whether something has been repeated exactly.
The variability that is built into the poetry of oral traditions allows the bard to adapt the material to the audience, but it also allows more memorable versions of the poem to arise. Folklorists have compared oral poems to pebbles worn down by the water. They’re made smooth over many retellings as the harder-to-remember pieces get chipped away, or made easier to retain and repeat. Irrelevant digressions are forgotten. Long or rare words are avoided. Between imagery, alliteration, and having to fit the meter of the line, the epic bard usually doesn’t have that many possible words to choose from. The structure writes the poem. Indeed, work by Parry’s successors has found that virtually every word in the Odyssey and the Iliad fits into some sort of schema, or pattern, that made the poems easier to remember.
It’s no coincidence that the art of memory was supposedly invented by Simonides at exactly the moment when the use of writing was on the rise in ancient Greece, around the fifth century B.C. Memory was no longer something that could be taken for granted, as it had been during Greece’s preliterate epoch. The old techniques of the Homeric bards, of rhythm and formula, were no longer adequate to holding in mind the new and complex thoughts that people were beginning to think. “The original oral performance with its poetry was stripped of functional purpose and relegated to the secondary role of entertainment, one which it always had but which now became its sole purpose,” writes Havelock. No longer burdened by the requirements of oral transmission, poetry was free to become art.
By the time the author of the Ad Herennium sat down to compose his handbook on oration in the first century B.C., writing was already a centuries-old craft, as fundamental a part of the Roman world as computers are a part of our own. The poems produced by his contemporaries—Virgil, Horace, and Ovid all wrote their masterworks within a century of the Ad Herennium—lived on the page. Each word was painstakingly selected, the product of a single artist expressing his singular vision. And once set down, those words were considered inviolable. If you were going to try to commit such poetry to memory, memoria verborum was what was called for. Rerum simply wouldn’t do.
The anonymous author of the Ad Herrenium suggests that the best method for remembering poetry ad verbum is to repeat a line two or three times before trying to see it as a series of images. This is more or less the method that Gunther Karsten uses in the poem competition. He assigns every single word to a route point. But this method has a glaring problem: There are lots of words that simply can’t be visualized. What does an “and” look like? Or a “the”? Some two thousand years ago, Metrodorus of Scepsis, a Greek contemporary of Cicero’s, offered a solution to the quandary of how to see the unseeable. Metrodorus developed a system of shorthand images that would stand in for conjunctions, articles, and other syntactical connectors. It allowed him to memorize anything he read or heard verbatim. Indeed, Metrodorus’s library of symbols seems to have been widely used in ancient Greece. The Ad Herennium mentions that “most of the Greeks who have written on memory have taken the course of listing images that correspond to a great many words, so that persons who wished to learn these images by heart would have them ready without expending effort in search of them.” Though Gunther doesn’t use Metrodorus’s symbols, which unfortunately have been lost to history, he has created his own dictionary of images for each of the two hundred most common words that can’t easily be visualized. “And” is a circle (“and” rhymes with rund, which means round in German). “The” is someone walking on his knees (die, a German word for “the,” rhymes with Knie, the German word for “knee”). When the poem reaches a period, he hammers a nail into that locus.
Gunther could just as easily be memorizing a VCR repair manual as a Shakespearean sonnet. In fact, a VCR repair manual would probably be a good deal easier, since it is filled with concrete, easily visualized words like “button,” “television,” and “plug.” The challenge of memorizing poetry is its abstractness. What do you do with words like “ephemeral” or “self” that are impossible to see?
Gunther’s method of creating an image for the un-imageable is a very old one: to visualize a similarly sounding, or punning, word in its place. The fourteenth-century English theologian and mathematician Thomas Bradwardine, who was later appointed archbishop of Canterbury, took this kind of verbatim memorization to its highest and most absurd level of development. He described a means of memoria sillabarum , or “memory by syllables,” which could be used to memorize words that were hard to visualize. Bradwardine’s system involved breaking the word into its constituent syllables and then creating an image for each syllable based on another word that begins with that syllable. For example, if one wanted to remember the syllable “ab-,” one would picture an abbot. For “ba-” one might visualize a crossbowman (a balistarius). When strung together, a chain of these syllables becomes a kind of rebus puzzle. (The Swedish pop group Abba could be recalled as an abbot getting shot by a crossbow.) This process of transforming words into images involves a kind of remembering by forgetting: In order to memorize a word by its sound, its meaning has to be completely dismissed. Bradwardine could translate even the most pious benediction into a preposterous scene. To remember the topic sentence of a sermon that begins “Benedictus Dominus qui per,” he’d see “the sainted Benedictine dancing to his left with a white cow with super-red teats who holds a partridge, while with his right hand he either mangles or caresses St. Dominic.”
The art of memory was, from its origins, always a bit risqué. Preoccupied with Gothic and sometimes downright lewd imagery, it was bound to come in for harsh criticism from the prudes eventually. It’s amazing, in a way, that the casual marriage of the reverent and irreverent that Bradwardine practiced in his imagination was not more upsetting to some of the more priggish clergy. When the moralistic attack finally came, it was led by the sixteenth-century Puritan reverend William Perkins of Cambridge. He decried the art of memory as idolatrous and “impious, because it calls up absurd thoughts, insolent, prodigious, and the like which stimulate and light up depraved carnal affections.” Carnal indeed. Perkins was particularly steamed by Peter of Ravenna’s admission that he used the lustful image of a young woman to excite his memory.
Of the ten events in the World Memory Championship, the poem has bred the greatest number of different strategies. But broadly speaking, mental athletes take two general tacks, which happen to segregate the pool of competitors fairly neatly by gender. While Gunther and most of the other men on the circuit subscribe to a methodical strategy, the women tend to approach the challenge in a more emotional way. Fifteen-year-old Corinna Draschl, an Austrian in a red T-shirt and matching red socks and red baseball cap, told me she can’t memorize a text unless she understands what it means. Even more than that, she has to understand how it feels. She breaks the poem into small chunks and then assigns a series of emotions to each short segment. Rather than associate the words with images, she associates them with feelings.
“I feel how the writer feels, what he is meaning. I imagine whether he’s happy or sad,” she told me in the hallway outside the competition hall. This is not dissimilar from how actors are taught to memorize scripts. Many actors will tell you that they break their lines into units they call “beats,” each of which involves some specific intention or goal on the character’s part, which they train themselves to empathize with. This technique, known as Method acting, was pioneered in Russia by Konstantin Stanislavski around the turn of the last century. Stanislavski was interested in these techniques not for their mnemonic potential but rather as tools to help the actor more realistically depict his character. But Method acting is a technique for giving a line more associational hooks to hang on by embedding it in a context of both emotional and physical cues. Method acting is a way of making words memorable. Indeed, studies have found that if you ask someone to memorize a sentence like “Pick up a pen,” it’s much more likely to stick if the person literally picks up a pen as they’re learning the sentence.
Ultimately, Gunther ended up losing the poetry event to Corinna Draschl, and losing the championship as well. The top prize went to one of his protégés, a quiet and intensely focused eighteen-year-old Bavarian law student named Clemens Mayer, who spoke only choppy English and made it clear that he had no interest in practicing the language on me. After botching the spoken numbers and names-and-faces events, Ben Pridmore landed in fourth place overall, lowered the brim of his black hat, and walked out the door alone, vowing that he would begin preparing the next day to reclaim his title one year hence.
Ed fared even worse. Of the three dozen competitors, he was one of only eleven who failed to memorize an entire deck of cards in either of the two speed cards trials, which is like a place kicker missing an extra point twice in a row. He’d been gunning for an especially low time that would take him to the upper ranks, but he’d lost control and burned too hard. He ended up finishing a disappointing eleventh place overall, and sulked out the door, sodden with sweat. I ran after him and grabbed him to ask what had happened. “Too much ambition,” was all he would say, shaking his head. “I’ll see you back at the house.”
He walked across the Magdalen Bridge to go find a pub where he could watch some cricket and drink Guinness until he’d forgotten his failure.
Standing at the front of the Oxford examination hall, watching the competitors scratch their heads and twiddle their pens as they struggled to recall “Miserare,” I felt acutely aware of how odd it was that we’ve come to this: that the only place left where the ancient art of memory is being practiced, or at least celebrated, is in this rarefied competition, and among this quirky subculture. Here in one of the world’s most storied centers of learning were the last vestiges of a glorious Golden Age of Memory.
It is hard not to feel as though a tremendous devolution has taken place between that Golden Age and our own comparatively leaden one. People used to labor to furnish their minds. They invested in the acquisition of memories the same way we invest in the acquisition of things. But today, beyond the Oxford examination hall’s oaken doors, the vast majority of us don’t trust our memories. We find shortcuts to avoid relying on them. We complain about them endlessly, and see even their smallest lapses as evidence that they’re starting to fail us entirely. How did memory, once so essential, end up so marginalized? Why did these techniques disappear? How, I wondered, did our culture end up forgetting how to remember?