Case Study: How to Memorize The Glugs of Gosh (an epic poem)

Good epic poems are rare. Funny epic poems are almost non-existent. But what about funny epic poems that also set a whole worldview to memorable rhythm? I’ve only found one so far. But I couldn’t memorize the Glugs of Gosh until I stopped using loci and visual mnemonics.

On the surface, this bizarre Australian poem from 1917 is a light satire about a society of “Glugs” who are basically insufferable Edwardians.

So the Glugs continued, with greed and glee,
To buy cheap clothing, pills, and tea;
Till every Glug in the land of Gosh
Had three clean shirts and a fourth in the wash.
And they all grew idle, and fond of ease,
And easy to swindle, and hard to please

It’s like Dr. Seuss for grownups. Better.

But at 14,500 words, this (minor) epic offers more than just criticism. So, back in 2007 or so, I decided to memorize the whole thing.

A Locus for Every Line (Bad Idea)

I started off using loci. This was my second big memory project, early in my memory career, and loci were still magic. Yes, the rhythms and rhymes would help. But I dutifully began to choose one or two visual mnemonics per line.

Let him who is minded to meet with a Glug,
Pluck three hardy hairs from a rabbit-skin rug;
Blow one to the South, and one to the West,
Then burn another and swallow the rest.

I have vague memories of a rabbit, a sombrero, a cowboy hat, something on fire…

It was astoundingly tedious. Recitation meant constantly switching gears from visual mode to oral mode. Perhaps I simply wasn’t good enough at making and reading my mnemonics. But it felt like the rhythm and rhyme were snapping under the strain. After ten stanzas or so, I gave up. For awhile.

Oral Mnemonics (Rhythm and Rhyme)

Meanwhile, my efforts with my first big memory project, the Gospel of Mark, eventually led me to the world of oral tradition. The Greeks and Romans may have relied on loci, but other cultures used oral, not visual, mnemonics. Rhythm, rhyme, music – these activate a whole different part of the brain. Oral peoples could memorize entire epics.

I returned to the Glugs, and tried repeating the lines out loud. I couldn’t believe it. Stanza after stanza clicked into place! I was leaping along the high wire without a net. Look, Mom! No loci!

Review or Redo

Actually, I did have a net: smart reviews, using spaced repetition. Simply reciting isn’t enough. At best, you soon forget it. At worst, you repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat until you actually do learn it, in the most inefficient and painful way possible. I.e., rote repetition. Our shared cultural memory of this horror is a big reason why so many people today are allergic to memory training.

Smart reviews avoid all that. (Okay, most of that. You don’t always feel like doing your cards.) You recite as few times as possible to fix the information in your brain.

For poetry, this means that instead of imposing the alien structure of visual mnemonics, you can focus on the natural oral rhythms and rhymes. Smart reviews will make them stick (usually).

Of course, spaced repetition is front-loaded. A new stanza needs to be repeated at least twice a day for the first three to four days, before you start the flashcard on Anki. Anki won’t do enough initial repetitions for a poem. After those first days of repetitions, you can start the card on Anki, and the normal spaced repetition schedule will take over.

By stanza and by canto

The key choice is how much to put onto a flashcard. After a lot of experimentation, I decided to review at two levels: by stanza and by canto. (The different sections don’t have a name, so I called them cantos.)

As I first learned a new canto, I would review each stanza on its own card. The prompt would be the last line of the preceding stanza, since the transition between stanzas is where I’d probably get lost. If the prompt was the first line of this stanza, I’d have no sense at all of how the stanzas connected.

One stanza per card kept my repetitions focused. I wouldn’t have to repeat three or four easy stanzas because of one mistake in a tricky area.

However, once I got through a canto, I would add a card for the entire canto. (For longer cantos, I would break them into sections.) I needed to recite each canto together, so I could put each stanza into context. Otherwise, I’d never know the poem as a whole.

This two-tier system worked pretty well. As a side note, I’m not sure the stanza is always a large enough unit. For the Ballad of the White Horse, I’m currently trying 20 lines or so. But so far, that seems a little long.

Speak clearly

Just as visual mnemonics need to be bright, colorful, and sharp, your recitation needs to be crisp. Your ears and even your mouth need to feel the shapes of the words. I remember when a line was giving me particular trouble, and I realized I needed to stop mumbling and actually articulate the words. I did, and they snapped into place. It felt like I’d turned on the light; I could see what I was doing.

Imagine the actual poem

An important reason not to use visual mnemonics constantly is that you want to be free to imagine what’s actually happening. You can only imagine one thing at a time. That’s why rhythm and rhyme are such a brilliant technology.

Visual mnemonics for the rough spots

Still, sometimes the oral isn’t enough. This poem was written to be read; it didn’t have the built-in mnemonic devices of, say, the Iliad. Sometimes, the repetitive structure would get me jumbled. Repetition can be great, but it can also cross your wires as you try to navigate. For those cases, I used visual mnemonics.

Instead of loci, I would attach the mnemonic to the actual poem. For instance, here’s a tricky stanza transition.

  Then they sang a psalm,   

Did those pious Glugs ‘neath the Snufflebust palm.

And every bee that kisses a flow’r,

This whole canto is a series of similar transitions. I kept forgetting what came after that gloriously Seussian Snufflebust palm. (Snufflebust. Who knew they had such cool words in 1917?) To connect the stanzas, I imagined a tufty tree from The Lorax, and put a giant bee in it. No locus was needed; the ending “Snufflebust palm” triggered the mnemonic.

Visual mnemonics for navigation (maybe)

This is a good one-off solution for occasional tough spots. However, it might have been smarter to use a locus for this whole troublesome canto. I could have used one or two prompts for each stanza (not each line).

A few other cantos had this same repetitive problem. I’ve (mostly) ironed out the kinks, thanks to Anki. Would it have been more efficient to set up loci as soon as I had trouble? Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. Which is less hassle, to set up an underlying loci system for navigation, or just repeat the whole canto a few more times? Your call.

On a side note, I do appreciate having a locus for the table of contents, to keep the cantos in order.

Success: combining techniques

When I started memorizing this poem, I thought I would need tons of loci. Ten years earlier, I would have thought I needed tons of repetition (also that it would be impossible). Instead, the solution was a combination of techniques. I had to:

  • focus on the natural rhythms of the poetry, by clear recitation and imagination
  • use Anki to refine (and keep) my recitation, at both the stanza and canto levels
  • use visual mnemonics where needed, when the oral asn’t enough

Any one or even two of these techniques would never have worked for me. So be flexible, and experiment. Every project is unique.

UPDATE: On a later review, I realized I did need to add a few more loci after all. I still didn’t need anything crazy like a mnemonic for every word or line. But a few stanzas (not all of them, or even close) were too easy to mix up. I needed loci to keep my oral memories organized.