Glugs Update: A few more loci for a long poem

When you're memorizing a long poem, you don't need visual mnemonics for every line. But if the poem is too repetitive, or too random, you may need a few extra loci to keep the stanzas in order.

In a previous post, I explained how I’ve memorized the epic poem, The Glugs of Gosh, without using many loci and visual mnemonics. “Mainstream” memory advice often suggests visual mnemonics for everything, but for poetry, that’s a mistake. You’ll get much farther, much faster, if you focus on your oral memory. You need to listen to the rhythms and the rhymes.

Think of all the songs you know by heart without even trying. You don’t need visual mnemonics to get corporate jingles stuck in your head.

However, you can still reach a point where you need to fall back on a few visual mnemonics. Most poems in modern English were not composed to be memorized. The author, not being a bard, used techniques or patterns that Homer wouldn’t have touched. The wrong kind of repetition and variation can sorely confuse your oral memory.

Spaced repetition shows me what I forgot

Not long after I finished my post about the Glugs, I had a crop of canto-length reviews for that very poem. I hadn’t seen these cantos in awhile. Turned out I didn’t remember some of them as well as I thought. Oops.

That’s how spaced repetition works. After the initial burst of reviews, the intervals get longer and longer. It’s a great system, but each interval is only an estimate. If the interval turns out a little too long for a particular card, your memory will fade before you see the card. When that happens, you need to mark the card Again. Anki will show it to you soon, in another short burst of reviews.

This isn’t like starting from scratch. Anki is sophisticated enough to note that you’ve already spent a lot of time on the card. You’re reactivating an old memory, so you won’t see the card as often as if you were seeing it for the first time.

It can be rather painful to mark an old card Again. (Especially if you just blogged about it.) But if you don’t, you won’t review the card again for a really long time, and you’ll forget it even more.

Besides, now you know for sure how crucial it is to use Anki every day. Otherwise, huge chunks of your memory work would slowly slip away.

When you need loci, admit it

In my case, I took another look at these half-forgotten cantos. Certain stretches had always given me trouble. After refreshing my memory, I could soldier my way through them (mostly), but they were more trouble than they should have been.

The problem was repetition with variation. The author, C. J. Dennis, would string together stanzas that all had a similar structure, but with different bits inside. Because the bits were random (at least to me), I’d miss my jump from one stanza to the next, and land in the wrong place.

Here’s an example:

The Glugs abide in a far, far land
That is partly pebbles and stones and sand
   But mainly earth of a chocolate hue,
   When it isn't purple or slightly blue.
And the Glugs live there with their aunts and their wives,
In draught-proof tenements all their lives.
   And they climb the trees when the weather is wet,
   To see how high they can really get.
      Pray, don't forget,
   This is chiefly done when the weather is wet.

And every shadow that flits and hides,
And every stream that glistens and glides
   And laughs its way from a highland height,
   All know the Glugs quite well by sight.
And they say, "Our test is the best by far;
For a Glug is a Glug; so there you are!
   And they climb the trees when it drizzles or hails
   To get electricity into their nails;
      And the Glug that fails
   Is a luckless Glug, if it drizzles or hails."

Now, the Glugs abide in the lands of Gosh;
And they work all day for the sake of Splosh.
   For Splosh, the First, is the Nation's pride,
   And King of the Glugs, on his uncle's side.
And they sleep at night, for the sake of rest;
For their doctors say this suits them best.
   And they climb the trees, as a general rule,
   For exercise, when the weather is cool.
      They're taught at school
   To climb the trees when the weather is cool.

And the whispering grass on the gay green hills
And every cricket that skirls and shrills,
   And every moonbeam, gleaming white,
   All know the Glugs quite well by sight.
And they say, "It is safe, it is the test we bring;
For a Glug is an awful Gluglike thing.
   And they climb the trees when there's a sign of fog,
   To scan the land for a feasible dog.
      They love to jog
   Thro' dells in quest of a feasible dog."

It’s great fun, of course. But it’s a whole mesh of repeating, varying patterns.

  • Every stanza ends with “and they climb the trees when…”

  • But every other stanza begins with a fairly random set of creatures who “know the Glugs quite well by sight,” and are then compelled to spout a random couplet.

You see the problem, right? After you finish the first stanza, there’s no logical reason to go to “every shadow that flits and hides,” rather than a few stanzas ahead, “the whispering grass on the gray green hills.” Even if you make it to the flitting shadows, are they saying, “Our test is the best by far,” or “It is safe, it is the test we bring,” or perhaps one of the other little couplets further on?

To spice things up even more, this same pattern is used all over again in another canto. So you can misfire all the way into a whole other canto.

Writing all this out, I’m wondering why I ever didn’t use loci. Well, actually, I know why, but that’s a whole other story. And I did use some mnemonics, and also find some connections. But it wasn’t enough. I could remember the bits orally, but I needed another system to keep these rhyming bits in the correct order. I needed loci.

Next time, I’ll explain how I was able to solve my Glugs issues much faster than I’d have guessed. You can find new loci in some unlikely places.