How 2000 year-old memory principles come to life in Richard Siken's Scheherazade

The poem Scheherazade creates powerful emotions, even if you have no idea what it means. A history of imagery (and memory) explains how.

“Visualize a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles. They are competing in a naked bicycle race, and they are headed straight for your front door.”

When journalist and accidental U.S. Memory Champion Joshua Foer stood up to deliver a TED talk in 2012, this is the image he chose to press on his audience.

In doing so, he invoked a 2000-year history of memorization that has only recently been studied by modern psychologists. He creates one hell of a hook for the rest of his talk, which you can watch below.

And he gives us the keys to analyze the poem Scheherazade (one of my favorites), even if you have no idea what it means.

Memory is imagery. Stretching back to 80 B.C. in ancient Rome, the text Rhetorica ad Herennium advises orators to “set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory,” by “establishing likenesses as striking as possible.”

Today’s memorizers use the same principles outlined in ad Herennium. And the influential role of imagery on the human brain appears all over the place.

  • Memorizers like Foer admit to having average memories – until they use image-based mnemonic devices to root ideas in their heads

  • Oral traditions relied on complete stories remaining intact over hundreds of years. In famous examples like Homer, you can observe imagery at work in preservation.

  • Modern writing, and poetry like Scheherazade, uses imagery to imply meaning. The images produced are so compelling that they grab your brain even if you don’t understand them.

Richard Siken’s poem Scheherazade is one of my favorites, and one of only a few I have memorized. It’s the first poem in Crush, a collection that won the prestigious 2004 Yale Younger Poets prize at the recommendation of poet laureate Louise Glück. 

I am not a poetry critic, and would be out of my depth if I tried to analyze the meter or school of poetry that Scheherazade hails from. 

Luckily, I don’t think understanding the poem is important. Siken’s use of imagery — the same imagery used by memory champions and epic ballads throughout history — is what makes him a master of his craft. 

Oral traditions survived intact for centuries. Scheherazade uses the same ideas to stick in your head.

“In Homer, the sea is always wine dark; the dawn, rosy fingered. In ballads, hands are always lily white, the first horse is a milk-white steed, and the second is a dappled bay.” – David Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions

Homer’s Iliad is over 500 pages long. In ancient times, before written language became widespread, people would regularly memorize epic poems to preserve them and pass them on.

In 1956, George Miller published one of the most highly-cited papers in psychology: "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information."

In it, he argues that humans can generally only remember about 7 things at once. That’s why phone numbers are 7 digits, why postal codes are 5 digits, and why you forget to buy butter when you don’t bring a shopping list.

But if that’s true – if people can only remember 7 items at a time – how could entire societies remember 500+ page epics over the course of centuries?

As cognitive psychologist David Rubin studies in Memory in Oral Traditions, ballads, epics, and poems were once specifically constructed to be remembered. 

George Miller wasn’t wrong to say that people can only remember 5-9 items at a time. The key missing insight to the Magical Number Seven is that some things are easier to remember than others.

  • For numbers and similar nonsense info, 7 ± 2 is roughly the limit of memory

  • Memory for pictures tends to be better than memory for words

  • Info shown in multiple formats (e.g. text plus video) may be better remembered

  • Visual and spatial memory are much, much, much more powerful than other types of memory

Imagine right now that you are in your childhood bedroom. What do you see when you get out of bed? I’d wager that you can remember what’s in the room without any trouble. 

But if someone gave them to you as a list of items to remember?

  • Wall lamp

  • Nightstand

  • Yellow rug

  • Closet curtain

  • Dresser

  • Window shade

  • Book shelf

  • Chess trophy

  • Lego fortress

All of these were in my childhood bedroom, and the list could be much longer. If someone handed you a list of objects and said “memorize this in 10 seconds,” you might struggle to learn more than 10. But when you say “list the objects in your childhood bedroom,” memory becomes easy.

For most of human history, images and spaces were more important than ideas. Early humans needed to be able to say “yup, that’s a tiger footprint” or “you’ll find water if you take a left past the tree with the gnarled roots.” 

(This is also why people say things like “I can’t remember names, but I never forget a face.” Names are arbitrary! Faces are visual.)

All memory systems – from the ancient “method of loci” in Rhetorica ad Herennium to the techniques that memory champions use today – rely on this insight. Abstract ideas are hard to remember on their own, but you can make them easier to remember by attaching them to concrete images. 

How did societies remember epic poems? David Rubin writes:

“The genres of epic and ballads consist of concrete, easy-to-image words and ideas...It is difficult to find an abstraction in these genres that is not personified or in some other way represented by a concrete person, object, or action.”

What does this have to do with Scheherazade?

How does imagery create meaning without understanding?

“Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography; history, and cosmology.” – Joseph Campbell

In his widely regarded work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argues that myths and origin stories play important cultural roles across the world. 

“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.”

Myths and stories, argues Campbell, are the mechanisms that societies use to teach morality and cultural norms. But, as David Rubin elaborates, oral traditions rarely come right out and explicitly share their moral lessons. 

Instead, they use symbols. 

Justice, heroism, piety, and similar concepts are difficult to picture in your head. Acts of justice, acts of heroism, and acts of piety are not. 

Images imply symbolism without directly stating the abstract ideas they are meant to convey. Which is why an image-heavy poem like Scheherazade packs so much punch.

Here is the text of the poem, with concrete images in bold.

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake

and dress them in warm clothes again.

How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running

until they forget that they are horses.

It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,

it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,

how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days

were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple

to slice into pieces.

Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means

we’re inconsolable.

Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.

These, our bodies, possessed by light.

Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

Every line of this poem has a compelling image. You may not know what it means, but the poem grabs your attention immediately with the graphic image bodies dragged from the lake. You can picture that apple being sliced into pieces. 

To take his imagery farther, Siken activates a range of different senses. 

  • Warm clothes

  • Song on a policeman’s radio

  • Dance

  • Bright red

  • Kissed

  • Light

Touch, warmth, color, exertion (“dance,” “pull,” “running”) — all sensations that create a more vivid picture.

Different senses activate different brain areas, and memories can be tied to senses. Psychologists use the term elaborative encoding to describe the idea that activating more senses at once can make an idea more memorable.

This is why oral traditions often describe movement. And, as Joshua Foer says in his talk, “the crazier, weirder, more bizarre, funnier, raunchier, stinkier the image is, the more unforgettable it’s likely to be.”

Modern authors and creative writing teachers understand this too. In her Masterclass, Margaret Atwood advises students to situate their characters in a world of rich textures – because the real world is full of rich texture. 

“What can they see? Is there a looming shadow? Is there a smell that indicates a foreign presence is nearby? Do they hear the howling of a supernatural wolf [laughs].” 

Or, as presented in Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction.

“If it is to be cold, you must chill not once or twice, but until your readers are shivering.”

The mix of concrete images and tangible sensations is how you make a reader shiver. And it’s what makes Scheherazade so memorable.

Ok, but all of this still means something, right? What does the author think?

“[Scheherazade] had read much, and had so admirable a memory, that she never forgot anything she had read. She had successfully applied herself to philosophy, medicine, history, and the liberal arts; and her poetry excelled the compositions of the best writers of her time. Besides this, she was a perfect beauty, and all her accomplishments were crowned by solid virtue. – The Arabian Nights Entertainments (1811) as translated by Jonathan Scott, Vol. I, p. 20”

Siken’s Scheherazade borrows its title from a major character of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled during the Islamic Golden Age (around 700 - 1400 A.D.). In Nights, the wicked sultan Shahryār takes a new wife each night and executes her each morning, until there are no remaining marriageable women – except Scheherazade.  

As bride of the murderous sultan, Scheherazade survives by weaving a new story night after night, leaving the sultan on such cliffhangers that he can’t possibly kill her until he learns each story’s end. One thousand and one nights later, the sultan spares Scheherazade and names her his queen.

Scheherazade is a prominent symbol throughout art and literature. Among many influences, she has inspired the naming of a crater on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, one of the most significant musical works of the 19th century, and an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

In Siken’s eyes, Scheherazade is a symbol of longing and escapism. These twin themes are what Siken seems to have intended with his homage, as he discusses in a profile with the Poetry Foundation.

“This poem, one of the gentlest in the collection, sets up the first of three sections in the book. Each section, Siken explains, moves us through the speaker’s relationship with death. In the first, he views death romantically and with longing; in the second, he understands it as a reality; in the third, the speaker “has been shot,” says Siken, “and is possibly dying against his will.” 

As with most masters, Siken’s work is layered. He calls upon the centuries-old Scheherazade to evoke longing and desperation alongside his own, more modern imagery. Structuring the poem to parallel the rest of the collection adds the potential for additional meaning – every work in the collection has the potential to change your interpretation of Scheherazade.

What does the poem mean? Is there a “right” interpretation? 

I can’t give you a definitive explanation of the meaning behind Scheherazade – because I don’t think there is a single correct explanation. “Death of the Author” means that Siken’s own interpretation isn’t necessarily definitive either. Art has meaning that transcends its creator.

What I can say is, meaning or no, Scheherazade is a masterclass in imagery. Rolled-up carpets, apples in pieces, and the light through the windowpane capture the imagination – and create a picture in your head that doesn’t need interpretation to feel meaningful.