Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Memorizing poems

At a meeting of my poetry workshop this week the subject of memorizing poems arose. The leader of the workshop asked if any of us wanted to recite poems we'd memorized. It was surprising how few of us had any committed to memory, though we were all quick to cite favorite poems and poets. My editor has a surefire technique for memorizing poems that involves writing them out repeatedly, line by line, accumulating lines after a certain number of times of writing each line or set of lines. He claims that you'll never forget a poem you once memorize this way.

I'm still working on Stanley Kunitz' "The Round," which I was only able to recite imperfectly, remembering later the lines I had omitted. Carrying a poem around in heart and mind is a special delight. Have you memorized any poems in your literary life? Any special quotes or pieces of prose? How did you do it? I'd love to hear about memorization techniques and how common or rare it is these days to memorize poems.


  1. I hope people come with tips on this one. I have decided to memorize a poem a week during the 2010/2011 school year.

  2. On Facebook someone gave a suggestion: record a reading of the poem and listen to it over and over. That's worked for me.

    What I do is write it out over and over, as I'm more of a visual person, and also the hand-eye connection is really powerful for me, which is why I often compose both prose and poetry by hand. But to memorize a poem by writing, you have to write it out a LOT.

  3. Before I left for boot camp I memorized several stanzas of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as a way to preserve some sense of civilization in me through what I anticipated to be a dehumanzing process.

  4. Did you see this in The Guardian?

    What's the Best Poetry to Learn by Heart?

    A man named John Basinger has memorized the whole of Paradise Lost.

    I can memorize 'em short-term but lose them from long-term memory. The writing thing might work.

  5. I memorized "Anyone Lives in a Pretty How Town" and "My Father in the Night Commanding No" when I was ten and eleven for my school's poetry competition, and I have never forgotten them. Also, the speech from Romeo in Romeo and Juliet that begins "I dreamed my lady came and found me dead." And "She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep." And parts of the Bible, especially Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations. My trick is reading it over once, reciting it, every day for a while. Seems to work!

  6. When I was in grad school, ten million years ago, I got anxious about the way everything I was reading for my orals seemed to be slipping away, so I memorized hundreds of poems and passages. Once you get the knack of it the memorization becomes pretty easy. But you need a systematic way of refreshing them, or they'll all just float away again. It's not permanent, not for adults. I've only kept the pieces I habitually say over -- muttering to myself at bus stops, mostly.

  7. Yes, when in school.
    "I wandered lonely as a cloud..

    No idea how it (memorizing) happened tho'.


  8. Being able to rattle off a poem at an unexpected moment is the coolest talent I possess. I still know Ogden Nash's "Take off with Books," which I memorized in sixth grade--that's 26 years ago! I'm blessed with a good memory and I just do it by reciting it aloud over and over and rereading it often. Sometimes I realize I have "accidentally" memorized a poem by rereading it so many times. One day I was teaching "Dover Beach" and I realized I had memorized it when I started quoting lines without looking at the textbook! Rhyming poetry is of course much easier to memorize.

  9. The only poem I have memorized is Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." I didn't set out to memorize it; it just happened to be in S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" and I liked and read it so many times that it got committed to memory.

    Hey, that technique of writing out material that you're memorizing is something that I used to memorize long chemical reactions in organic chemistry. It works!

  10. Anonymous10:10 PM

    Read it aloud, and love it as you read it, cherish it.
    Sing it out , even to an empty room.
    "Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is Joyky for Jacob...
    --from Finnegans Wake
    lovely in its bones, (nod to Roethke)