Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Aimless Reading: The Y's, Part 2 (Frances A. Yates)

The Art of Memory
Yates, Frances A.
The Art of Memory

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I discovered it my first year in graduate school. I forget who it was that recommended it. Probably Susan Howe, but I can't say for certain. I became completely obsessed with it. My favorite memories of teaching at the university level, which are few, involve using this book to teach writing.

In one class, I mixed in the study of Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space with this and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher.  I can remember drawing a picture of Bachelard's archetypal French home, with its multiple floors, basement and garret, then using this idea to map out a rudimentary memory system. I somehow connected all of this to the house in Poe, but I can't recall exactly what the connection to memory was.

My favorite class, though, came the following semester. I decided to try an experiment teaching poetry. Instead of covering a lot of ground, I decided to cover only a little. One poem, in fact: "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," by Robert Duncan. The first exercise was to have the entire class memorize and recite the poem. The idea being to make everyone intimately familiar with the words before we started thinking about what they meant.

Following the memorization exercise, we read a chapter from Yates on how to construct a memory system. The gist is that you first have to visualize a detailed map of a place -- a city, a neighborhood, a house, whichever -- and then you need to create startling images to help you recall specific words and phrases in the piece you are trying to memorize. You set these images in rooms, niches, whatever, in a specific order and then as you recite, you follow the exact path through the space, using each image to recall the next line in whatever it is you happen to be reciting. The assignment was to build a memory system around Duncan's poem. Students were asked to map out a place, create startling images, set those images in a specific sequence in areas throughout the map, then present the map to the class an explain how it worked.

Following this, we moved on close reading. I showed the students how to read a poem without referring to outside texts. I asked each of them to produce a five page close reading of the poem. The final exercise involved using outside sources to produce a research paper. I provided them with all kinds of texts that they could use to analyze the poem and asked them to research these sources and produce a paper based on that research.

All in all, I think we spent about six or eight weeks on that poem. I have no idea what I followed it up with to close out the semester. It can only have been a letdown.

from The Art of Memory

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

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