"I am not one who was born in the custody of wisdom. I am one who is fond of olden times and intense in quest of the sacred knowing of the ancients." Gustave Courbet

28 March 2017


At a formal banquet, Simonides of Ceos sang a poem in praise of the Gods and his host. Afterwards, the host, the nobleman Scopas, berated Simonides for the poem, saying he would only pay half of the agreed-upon wages because only half the poem was for Scopas. Let the Gods pay the other half, intended for them. Shortly after this encounter, a messenger came into the banquet and informed Simonides that two men on horseback were waiting for him outside. But when he went outside there was no one there. Upon returning to the banquet, he found everyone dead. In his absence, the hall had collapsed into rubble. When the relatives of the deceased came, they could not identify their dead. And so Simonides of Ceos restored the banquet in his mind and, walking past each table setting, remembered the guest who had dined there.

The method of loci (or the memory palace technique) grew out of this myth about memory. According to this mnemonic device, someone can remember a list of things by placing each item, via a strong image, in a distinct, familiar location (whether it’s a series of rooms in a building or a route through a city) and then simply walk through this location to recall the items. Historical accounts record Seneca the Elder retaining 2,000 words in the exact order he received them. An orator could also recite a text backward by simply reversing the direction he walked through his memory palace. St. Augustine writes of his friend Simplicius being able to recite Virgil line by line backward.

Both the method and the myth speak to the latent connection between poetry and architecture. There’s the obvious connection that many poems rely on the built environment as memorable, resonant backdrops for their narratives and lyrics. But the more powerful, subtle connection relates more to structure. In Chinese, the character for poetry is composed of two symbols: “word” and “temple.”

Words are the stones, precisely chiseled and laid, to create the sacred, culturally resonant whole. Both poems and buildings achieve their effects through attention to detail, texture, and structure; awareness of cultural and historic resonance; and spatial and temporal (not to mention emotional and conceptual) development.


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