fbpx

Memorize Poetry

How to memorize poetry

how to memorize poetry

There are basically two approaches you can take to memorizing poetry:

  1. Attach mnemonics to each individual word, ensuring that every detail is exactly in place.
  2. Focus on overall ideas and stanzas and lines, using mnemonics for the basic structure but remembering the details simply as elements that fall under the general ideas.

Personally, I’m much more in favor of the second option, because I find it both more practical and more meaningful. It seems to work really well for traditional poetry, or any poetry with rhyme and meter, though free verse poetry may sometimes be more effectively memorized using the first option. For this discussion, we’ll focus on traditional poetry.

Poetry lovers: CLICK HERE if you want a new course for memorizing 80 classic poems, faster than ever!

Traditional poetry is very interesting because there are so many elements that help you remember it:

  • The progression of ideas and feelings
  • The structure in stanzas
  • Meter
  • Rhyme

If you remember the basic points in a poem and then listen to it or say it out loud a few times, all the elements listed above will make it pretty easy to get the poem basically word-perfect from there. In particular, meter and rhyme latch on to the memory pretty quickly.

That said, the main challenge in taking on the memorization of a poem is to remember the basic framework. My process for doing this is listed below.

 

1. Use a memory palace for the stanzas.

Most likely, a poem that is divided into stanzas treats a somewhat different idea in each stanza, so what you’ll want to do is to place each stanza in a different room.

Some poems aren’t divided by the author into stanzas, but you can break them up a few lines at a time.

To demonstrate the process, I’ll use Anne Bradstreet’s short poem “The Author to Her Book” as an example. Don’t be intimidated by its length; we’ll break it up:

 

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

Who after birth didst by my side remain,

Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,

Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,

Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,

Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).

At thy return my blushing was not small,

My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,

I cast thee by as one unfit for light,

The visage was so irksome in my sight;

Yet being mine own, at length affection would

Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.

I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.

In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.

In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,

And take thy way where yet thou art not known;

If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;

And for thy mother, she alas is poor,

Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

 

I’ve broken the poem into four stanzas with six lines each, so I’ll have to use a memory palace with four primary locations. For the purposes of this illustration, I’ll arbitrarily use an old-fashioned children’s playground as my memory palace, with the four locations being (1) a metal ladder, (2) a wooden platform at the top of the ladder, (3) a metal slide that goes down from the platform, and (4) the rough mulch on the ground at the bottom of the slide.

The actual placing of the stanzas along the memory palace will happen in a later step.

 

2. Select a single key/prompt word from each line

Remember that we are just trying to memorize a basic structure on which we can hang the details of the poem. There’s a fine balance between choosing enough details that we’ll remember everything and choosing little enough that we don’t have too much to do.

I find that for almost every poem I’ve memorized, one word per line is enough. (There’s a chance you’ll have to use two words per line if the lines are long, but be consistent either way.)

For this poem, that means only memorizing 24 words, placing 6 words in each location in the memory palace.

Don’t just choose the most important word from each line; choose the word that will prompt you to remember the rest of the line.

Here are the words I’ve chosen:

 

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

Who after birth didst by my side remain,

Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,

Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,

Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,

Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).

At thy return my blushing was not small,

My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,

I cast thee by as one unfit for light,

The visage was so irksome in my sight;

Yet being mine own, at length affection would

Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.

I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.

In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.

In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,

And take thy way where yet thou art not known;

If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;

And for thy mother, she alas is poor,

Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

 

3. Place the keywords along the path

This is simply a matter of attaching each the stanzas to the locations by use of the words we’ve selected.

Verse 1: To associate the playground ladder with the first six words, we’ll imagine a chubby little child (offspring) standing at the base of a ladder, reluctant to go up (remain), until someone already on the ladder grabs him and pulls him up with both hands (snatched). This person then holds the shy, embarrassed child up for all the other kids to see (exposed), showing that he is dressed in rags. One of the shreds of cloth, the most embarrassing part of all, has all kinds of misspelled words scribbled on it with clashing colors of ink (errors), showing that the child is not the most polite and educated kid in the world.

Bear with me here. Remember, the point is to create memorable images. At this point, see if you can remember those six words.

Verse 2: The location for the second stanza is the platform at the top. There the child is handed up to his mother, who is standing there looking angrily at her blushing son. She is not a good mother, and she calls him a brat for having scribbled on his own clothes. She then points to the slide and tells him to go down, because he is unfit to remain in such an honorable place as this noble wooden platform. The kid doesn’t want to go down the slide; instead he sits down… on his mother’s feet, which she finds irksome. But then she calms down a little, with the feeling of him leaning against her knees and crying, and her renewed affection prompts her to try in some way to amend her son.

Verse 3: The mother still intends to send the son down the slide, but she hopes it does him some good. It’s a metal slide, so it’s normally burning hot under the midday sun, but as her son sits at the top about to go down, she dumps a cold bucket of water over him and the slide (washed). Unfortunately, although he’s careful with his hands, the boy catches a splinter in one knee as he starts to go down because of the roughness of the wood on the sides of the slide (flaw), and as he straightens his leg back out to see what’s happened (stretched), he laments that he will probably be hobbling for a while until it heals. As he is about to dismount from the slide, the kids watching mock him that his sopping wet clothes now have the look of a girl’s dress, but he angrily retorts that it’s just because all his clothes are cheap and homemade (homespun).

Verse 4: The boy stands barefoot on the rough bark of the playground and starts to roam around the area, trying to lose the children’s attention. Instead, several of them start critiquing the way that he walks with the splinter in his leg (critic’s). He tells them to lay off; they shouldn’t be criticizing him because nobody in the playground even knows who he is (known). As soon as he says that, he immediately sees that there is one exception, because the man sitting on a park bench a stone’s throw away is his own father. He turns around to tell his mother, and she tells him to go to him and show him his splinter (send).

If you think this process degrades the poem, I disagree. In the end, you will be able to visualize what is happening in the story in your mind as you recite the poem, using the story as prompts without ruining the meaning of the poem itself.

 

4. Quiz on the keywords/prompts

I believe in really getting those 24 words right as early as possible.

Actually, I have created a Quizlet set for this poem, so you can quiz on these words yourself if you are interested in memorizing this poem (make sure to check the “see term first” option at the bottom left):

The Author to Her Book

As you quiz, always think back to the four locations in the memory palace and what we’ve done there.

 

5. Listen to recordings of the poem and recite along

This last step in the process is very enjoyable. I like to recite along with poetry while driving.

You’ll find it’s not only pretty easy to learn poetry once you’ve memorized the basic structure, but your memory will also be amazingly reliable no matter where or when you choose to recite it. Since you always have that solid memory palace to go back to, as long as you’ve applied a good review process, you’ll probably never find yourself groping for the next line.

I’ve memorized over a dozen poems recently using this type of technique.

What poem do you want to memorize? Shoot me an email or leave me a voice mail question. I’d love to help you learn it as quickly and as permanently as possible.