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.
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.