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How to Memorize a Poem

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When my son was a newborn, he loved it when we sang him songs. He loved it so much, in fact, that all those cherished lullabies I’d painstakingly memorized didn’t lull him to sleep at all—they kept him rapt with attention. So I fell back on reciting him poetry.

Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky” was Thomas’ favorite. It made me so happy to talk to my “beamish boy” as I gently rocked him to sleep. With the perfect poem in mind, I was able to share the gift of poetry with someone I cared about at just the right moment.

Memorizing poetry used to be a part of most school curricula. It’s still an important skill because

  • Poetry helps you digest difficult emotions. A poet’s talent lies in putting ideas and emotions it is difficult to express into words. Poetry can help you come to terms with your own tricky thoughts.
  • Poetry builds cultural literacy. Poems aren’t just words. They contain a wealth of metaphors and allusions that familiarize you with history, mythology, literature, and a host of other important subjects.
  • It improves your memory. Poetry is a great way to develop your ability to memorize all sorts of things, from birthdates to important ideas.
  • You always know the right thing to say. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun to be the person who can talk about the way flowers “outdid the sparkling waves with glee” or compare yourself to “an admiring bog!”

Memorizing poetry is easier than it looks.

  1. Choose wisely. Poems with simple meter and rhyme are the easiest to memorize. You’re also more likely to take the time to learn a poem you enjoy and connect to personally.
  2. Read and understand. It is easier to memorize poetry that speaks to you. Spend some time really getting to know your poem. Find resources about the poem on-line or Google the poet. You might even try discussing the poem with a few of your friends.
  3. Break it up. Break the poem into small pieces and memorize them bit by bit. Stanzas are a natural division.
  4. Repetition, repetition, repetition. The best way to memorize anything is to expose yourself to it over and over again. Read the poem every night right before you go to sleep. Tape a copy of the poem to your bathroom mirror to read while you’re brushing your teeth. Make reciting the poem a part of your child’s nighttime routine.
  5. Test yourself. When you have almost memorized your poem, check yourself throughout the day. Recite it without the poem in hand to avoid the temptation to cheat.
  6. Practice makes perfect. Don’t keep your newly-memorized poem to yourself! One of the joys of learning poetry is reciting it to your friends at just the right moment. You might even inspire one of them to memorize a poem of her own.

Homework

Emily Dickinson’s poems are a great way to start poetry memorization. (You can learn most of Emily Dickinson’s poems easily and quickly by singing them to the tune of the “Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle.”) In “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers,” Dickinson compares hope to a bird that sings against all odds and asks nothing in return.


Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune—without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

What poems do you love? Have you committed any to memory? Let us know in the comments.

4 responses »

  1. I memorized I Dream a World by Langston Hughes many years ago, I still remember some of it. I like the idea of reciting poetry to the kiddos, will have to steal that idea!

    Reply
  2. Langston Hughes is a great one! I’ve got Theme for English B down. I’m a personal fan of Robert Frost(wonderful to recite to yourself while hiking) and some Robert Service. I’m working on the Cremation of Sam McGee right night because I think it could be fun to recite it around a bonfire some summer night.

    Reply
  3. I was required to memorize Thanatopsis long ago. It is a wonderful almost epic poem.

    Reply
  4. “Opportunity” by Edward Rowland Sill and “I See His Blood Upon the Rose” by Joseph Mary Plunkett. Both of these poems are sources of strength and inspiration for me.

    Reply

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