Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

How to Memorize Poems

I saw this piece earlier today, but I got so caught up in Garrison Keillor (here, on Twitter, and at The Rumpus) along with my class prep for this evening that I haven’t had the chance. Anyway, the article is on memorizing poetry, and the author wants to know how she should do it more effectively.

I’m no great shakes at memorizing poems–even when I was required to do so in high school, I always waited until the last minute, and I often did poorly at it. But I have picked up a handful of them over the last ten years or so which, not coincidentally, is the amount of time I’ve been teaching. In short, I’ve memorized most of these poems by accident.

Most of them are formal poems–metrically regular, often rhymed. Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” for example. The longest one of the bunch is the first at 36 lines, nothing like the example in the article of John Basinger, who’s memorized “Paradise Lost.” The lone exception in my very limited repertoire is E. E. Cummings’s “since feeling is first,” which was also the first poem I ever memorized because I wanted to know it by heart. I memorized that one in high school simply by writing it on the front of my English folder and looking at it every day for a couple of months.

So I guess that for me, memorization comes only with repeated and lengthy exposure. I didn’t realize I knew Frost’s poem by heart until the middle of last semester when I found myself not referring back to my anthology while we discussed it in class. It was an accidental memorization.


May 26, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Step one, have a good memory (which rules me out). Step two, read poem. Repeat step two as necessary until known by rote.

    Rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration were originally mnemonic devices to memorize poetry in oral tradition. So, I’m fairly certain more formal and traditional verse lends itself to it.

    Leeds knew a Russian prof. who could rattle off 80 lines of Pushkin. I’m lucky if I remember a haiku well enough to look it up and find it again.

    It’s a waning skill in our society. Either Richard Burton or Lawrence Olivier said they used to memorize poems to keep up their acting skill. I can’t even remember which one.

    Comment by Raymond | May 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. I learn many poems by heart. I love to do it. I begin by reading the poem, but really I begin by quieting myself and being open to the poem. I read it quietly and out loud. Even when I read it to myself I hear the sounds and feel them moving. I notice the quality of the sounds. Then I write it out. I look for all the nouns. I look for the verbs. I look for the rhyme scheme, the rhythm, the climax, the meaning etc. I engage with it and really have fun. Then I often take the poem out for a walk. Recite and walk. Tell the poem to a tree or a bird. I find it exhilarating. That is what i do!

    Comment by offthepagepoetry | May 27, 2010 | Reply

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