memorizing poetry

4 posts

The Secret Superpower You Don’t Know About

If you’re like me, you probably remember teachers who asked you to memorize a speech (“Four score and seven years ago…”), a Shakespeare soliloquy (“The quality of mercy is not strained…”), or a political document (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”).  And, if you’re like me, you probably hated the assignment. After all, as you pleaded, you were terrible at memorization. Suzy Straight-A might manage it (like everything else), but you? Never!

Trouble is, your high drama was a bit of a lie. 

You see, as humans, we are hard-wired for memorization. It’s something we do naturally, if not by design then by happenstance. Why? Because memorized words are possessions, and if there’s one thing people like, it’s owning stuff (look around yourself or, for more dramatic purposes, think of Gollum speaking preciousssss nothings to a mere ring).

Still doubtful? The proof is in the pudding. You know hundreds of idioms like “the proof is in the pudding.” Chances are you know a few prayers by heart, too: “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” “Hail Mary, full of grace,” “Now I lay me down to sleep,” “It is our duty to praise and thank you, to glorify and sanctify Your name, “ etc.

And songs. There’s no telling how many lyrics you can pull out of nowhere once a song you love graces your ears.

Pretty impressive for someone incapable of memorization, no?

One of the most interesting English professors I took a course with at college had the misfortune of being a prisoner of war during WWII. He told us stories about the war and said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout months of misery, he would recite poems in his mind over and over — words he had learned during his own schooldays — to keep himself together.

These poems became his company. His friends and his succor. His daily mantras. Without them, he said, he would almost surely have pleased his captors by going mad.

A memorized poem or three is a tool we all should have in our kits. They are great for your mental health in that they are like meditations: Calming touchstones. Sweet treats from inner voice to inner ear. Or, if you want to amaze your family or a few friends, there’s that, too.

To start, go short. Poems that rhyme and have a nice beat are easiest. Here are three that I memorized in minutes, meaning you can con them in less time still. The go-to guy for short rhymes that blend with the great outdoors and the great indoors we call gray matter is Robert Frost. Let’s start with an 8-liner that works especially well in winter (coming soon to a northern hemisphere near you):


Dust of Snow

by Robert Frost


The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree


Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.


Face it, in these pandemic days, saving a part of a day you had rued is vastly underestimated, crow or no. 

Here’s another rhyming 8-liner. It’s featured in S.E. Hinton’s young-adult classic The Outsiders. In that book (and movie), the protagonist Ponyboy Curtis lowers his defense shields in front of his pal Johnny by showing off some memorized poetry. The catalyst? Sunrise. And Johnny, who promises not to tell the gang back in Tulsa, thinks it’s plenty cool, too. (If you need better endorsement than Johnny, who coined the words, “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” there’s no helping you.)


Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost


Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.


With those two under your belt, you can look to the stars and belt out Frost’s ode to the heavens — in particular, the brightest star Sirius, which is part of Canis Major, loyal dog co-starring in the winter sky with his owner, the constellation Orion.


Canis Major

by Rober Frost


The great Overdog,

That heavenly beast

With a star in one eye,

Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright

All the way to the west

And never once drops

On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,

But tonight I will bark

With the great Overdog

That romps through the dark.


On winter mornings, if I’m out before sunrise, I like to recite “Canis Major” and watch Frost’s words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. They rise to join Orion’s best friend for eternity — and how cool (or, depending on the month, cold) is that?

Your confidence high and your inner powers bolstered (I kid you not — having poems memorized for any moment is a superpower), I’ll leave you with the most beloved Frost poem, one you probably heard a lot as a child and had half-memorized once upon a time anyway.

Let’s revisit this sweet-16 liner (really 15, as the last two lines echo each other through the ages), practice, and become a foster parent to four poems, shall we? You’ll thank me later, guaranteed.


Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost


Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   


My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   


He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   


The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.


Will you sleep better after memorizing these poems? No doubt. And feel better. And feel more a part of the nature of things, like men who gathered round the fires long ago to hear bards unfold their long, memorized songs and sagas about heroes and heroines, monsters and dragons, et and cetera.

Speak, Memory, I say.

And why not? You’re already good at it. Very good.


Clive James’ Recommended Poems


Last week we lost Clive James, writer and critic from Australia, which naturally led to sales of his books that will do him no good. I picked up his Poetry Notebook and, in the early pages, came across a blog-friendly list. You know blogs and lists. A marriage made in Purgatory.

Still, James was of the opinion that good poetry is best put to memory. Some educational methods never go out of style — or shouldn’t.

Here’s a Clive James Starter List for Memorization of Very, Very Good Poetry:

  • Sonnet 129 (Shakespeare)
  • “The Definition of Love” (Marvell)
  • “Ode on Melancholy” (Keats)
  • Vitae Summa Brevis” (Dowson)
  • “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” (Yeats)
  • “you should above all things be glad and young” (Cummings)
  • “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Stevens)
  • “The Sunlight on the Garden” (MacNeice)
  • “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” (Auden)


Granted, old school. And very DWM (Dead + White + Male). His list called Five Favourite (sic) Poetry Books has the same slant:

  • The Tower (W. B. Yeats)
  • Collected Poems (Robert Frost)
  • Look, Stranger! (W. H. Auden)
  • Poems 1943-1956 (Richard Wilbur)
  • The Whitsun Weddings (Philip Larkin)


Not exactly a wild and crazy list, right? In his defense, James quotes Wilbur who, in his critical book on poetry, Responses, says there might be an occasional revolution in poetry, but it will always be a palace revolution. (Oh those poets and their ivory towers. They love to circle the ivory wagons and get all insular and interbred, don’t they?)

Writes James: “The mission of the poet is to enrich literary history, not to change it. When the academic study of a poet begins to concentrate on his supposedly game-changing impact on the history of literature, it’s time to watch out. All too often it will be a case of the publicity outstripping the event.”

There you have it, poets. Leave revolutions to the firebrands. Make like Rockefeller and enrich!

A Few Words from St. Billy of Collins


Returning to the book, Light the Dark (see yesterday’s post), let’s look for illumination in Billy Collins’ essay included in that collection. In it he references an earlier essay he wrote called “Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader.” I sought it on-line and instead found the essay that’s in this book, which was originally written for The Atlantic.

First, Collins speaks to why he finds W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” so inspiring. He teaches it, for one, and after many years of doing so, decided to commit it to memory (one of the “pleasures” of poetry, I believe, in the essay I could not find).

Next he shares an anecdote I could relate to–one involving an MRI (I had my first this  past year and yes, got a poem out of it). Collins said it was “like being buried alive in a very high-tech coffin.” With the help of Yeats, Collins survived his half hour of hell by reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” over and over and over again.

Ah, the medicinal uses of poetry!

From here, Collins gives a little history of poetry before the written word, how its rhyme and meter helped the shamans commit to memory, kind of like how people commit songs to memory today with little effort and through the help of repetition (thank you, radio stations and/or mp3s or whatever people are constantly streaming out of Pandora’s box these days).

Collins claims he seeks the same rhythms in his own free verse, making it a bit less free, maybe. He explains:

It’s hard to describe, though you know it when you feel it. For me, it’s often about gracefulness. I want graceful lines and graceful sentences. I try to write very simply. The vocabulary is simple, the sentences tend to be quite conventional—subject, verb, object. I try to be very unchallenging in syntax. I want the trip to be one of imagination and not completely of the language. But I’m also thinking about the reader, whom I’m trying to guide through an imaginative experience. I want the excitement of the poem—if I can generate some—not to lie in a fancy use of language, or an eccentric use of language. I want the poem to be an imaginative thrill. To take the reader to an odd place, or a challenging place, or a disorienting place, but to do that with fairly simple language. I don’t want the language itself to be the trip. I want the imaginative spaces that we’re moving through to be the trip.

One thing I think we all can agree upon is that some modern-day poetry has lost its way. It is reassuring, therefore, to hear Collins agree. Go get ’em, Billy!:

Poetry’s kind of a mixture of the clear and the mysterious. It’s very important to know when to be which: what to be clear about and what to leave mysterious. A lot of poetry I find unreadable is trying to be mysterious all the time. It’s not so much a mixture of clarity and mystery, instead of a balance between the two. If the reader doesn’t feel oriented in the beginning of the poem, he or she can’t be disoriented later. Often, the first lines of a poem—many times, I find them completely disorienting. But I’d like to go to that place, but I like to be taken there rather than than being shoved into it. It’s like being pushed off the title into the path of an approaching train.

I know from past sermons that Collins believes you should start your books with your strongest poems. It’s advice I’ve tried to take in my own books, only I sometimes worry when my readers point out anything BUT my lead-off batter as their favorites.

That’s how subjective poetry can be. It’s scary, yes, but reassuring, too. Think of it: MANY of your poems, no matter what their seeding in the tournament of your book, can serve as the best and the brightest up front. At least if your readers are to be believed (and who else would you believe more, I ask rhetorically?).

My favorite passage in Collins’ essay speaks to poetry’s “diminished public stature.” I stew on this often. Why do so many so-called “readers” never read poetry? Are they really “readers” if they only read certain genres? You can argue yes, and you can argue no. Chicken or egg? I’m going with egg, thank you, and arguing, “No,” but then, I can be selfish at times. Here’s the relevant Collins:

And yet I think poetry is as important today as it’s ever been, despite its diminished public stature. Its uses become obvious when you read it. Poetry privileges subjectivity. It foregrounds the interior life of the writer, who is trying to draw in a reader. And it gets readers into contact with their own subjective life. This is valuable, especially now. If you look around at the society we live in, we’re being pulled constantly into public life. It’s not just Facebook, which is sort of the willing forfeiture of one’s own privacy. The sanctuaries of privacy are so scarce these days. Every banality, from “I’m going out for pizza,” to “JoAnn is passed out on the sofa,” is broadcast to the wide world. I think I read recently that we’re not suffering from an overflow of information—we’re suffering from an overflow of insignificance. Well, poetry becomes an oasis or sanctuary from the forces constantly drawing us into social and public life.

I like that. The gratuitous dis of on-line behavior, especially. “We’re not suffering from an overflow of information–we’re suffering from an overflow of insignificance.”

So why would so many “readers” become addicted to THAT while turning up their noses to poetry? Perhaps we should assign them “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” as a cure? Perhaps they need a “bee-loud glade” or two to realign their perspectives?

I think so. Turning off social networks will slow things down, and that’s the first thing “readers” need to do to appreciate poetry. Slow down. Reread. Luxuriate in language and its sounds to reacquaint yourself with peace, “for peace comes dropping slow….”



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Why You Should Memorize a Poem


One of the profoundest things I learned in college came from an English professor who was once a prisoner of war during WWII. He said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout the drudgery and misery of his captivity, he would recite poems in his mind – words he had captured himself during schooldays. These poems became his company. His friends and succor. Without that, he said, he would almost surely have gone mad.

This morning, venturing into the crisp, 30-something degree dark with the dog, I was greeted as usual by the cheerful stars. It’s in those darkest-before-dawn hours that they seem sharpest, brightest, as if they save their diamond best as a treat for early risers.

And the friendliest October constellations to greet me? Orion, of course, with Canis Major, his faithful hunting dog, at his heels. I greet both dog and hunter by reciting aloud a Robert Frost poem I memorized long ago. Owning that poem makes me feel good, and the celestial dog seems to appreciate the attention to. Here’s what I say to the dark (“Canis Major” by Robert Frost):

The great Overdog,
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye,
Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

Each cloud-free morning, when I recite the poem, I watch the words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. Together they rise in the sky to join Canis Major, and Orion doesn’t seem to mind a bit. (I’m Sirius!)

On days starting like today, I often think of my professor and how right he was. And you don’t have to be a prisoner of war to benefit, either. You might be a prisoner of sadness. Or circumstances. Or boredom. Memorizing a poem will take care of your blues, I promise. Try it!