Memorizing poetry is a great way to exercise your mind and expand your understanding of one of the most important literary genres. Unfortunately, memorizing poems is hard. I started memorizing poems earlier this year. I still find the process difficult, but through a lot of trial and error, I’ve managed to pick up a few tricks and strategies to make it easier.
What follows is my advice for memorizing poetry, based on the steps that I typically take when starting with a new poem. These are meant more as guidelines than as rules. You don’t have to follow the steps in the exact order they’re presented, and you don’t have to follow every step. You can expect to find yourself having to adjust your memorization technique depending on the poem that you’re working with. With all that said, I hope you find these strategies as useful as I do!
Choosing a Poem to Memorize
A preliminary step, before actually getting to the memorization, is choosing which poem you are going to memorize. The importance of this step can’t be overstated. Although you could theoretically memorize any poem, you’ll quickly discover that some poems lend themselves to memorization much more than others.
An ideal poem for a beginner should be long enough to provide a challenge, but short enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed by the process. At fourteen lines, a sonnet is a perfect length. Since sonnets have been a major form of poetry for centuries, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
Another benefit of sonnets is that they have an established rhyme and meter. You’ll soon discover that free verse poems can be extremely difficult to memorize and that traditional poetic forms tend to be much easier. It’s because the traditional forms let you build a scaffold in your memory to fit the words into.
A final thing to consider when selecting a poem is how well known the poem is. The more famous a poem is, the more resources you’ll have to help you memorize it. Explanations, critical essays, and recordings are all easier to come by for a world famous poem than for something written by a relative unknown. When you’re first starting out, I recommend sticking to famous poems. After you’ve developed your memorization skills, you can branch out to the more obscure ones.
If you’re still having trouble picking a poem to memorize, I recommend taking a look through the book Committed to Memory, which is available for free on poets.org. I have no affiliation with the book or website, but I found the book incredibly helpful when I was starting to memorize poems, so I like to recommend it. It’s a collection of poems specifically curated for being relatively easy to memorize.
Memorizing the Poem
- Read through the entire poem aloud.
The first thing I always do when starting to memorize a poem is read through the entire thing. It gives an initial sense of the poem’s meaning and structure, helping you understand how it all fits together. I prefer to read aloud than to read silently so that I can more easily catch the poems rhythm, rhymes, and meter.
- Look up the meaning of words and phrases you don’t know.
After one (or sometimes a few) readthroughs, my next step is turning to a dictionary to look up any words that I don’t know the meaning of. Poems, especially those written centuries ago, tend to have a much higher frequency of unfamiliar words than other types of literature. It can also be more difficult to understand the words from context alone. I rarely turn to a dictionary when reading a novel, but with poetry, a dictionary is an indispensable tool.
- Reread the poem.
Once I’m satisfied that I understand all of the words, I go through the poem again, trying to make sure I understand each line.
- Read explanations and analyses of the poem.
I like to turn to explanations of the poem I’m reading to clear up any confusion I have about line meaning. I also often find details pointed out that I totally missed during my own reading. For me, this is a very important step, because memorization becomes much easier when I feel like I really understand a poem through and through.
- Listen to recordings of others reading the poem.
The last thing I do before getting started with the more rote aspects of memorization is try to find recordings of other people reading the poem aloud. Youtube has been a great resource for this, especially with classic poems. What I’m primarily listening for in these recordings are rhythm, accent, and pronunciation. A lot of words have had slight changes in their pronunciation over time, so sometimes the way I pronounce the word differs from the way the author did. These changes can ruin the flow of a poem, so listening to the original pronunciation helps me make sure I get it right.
- Read one line, close your eyes, and repeat it.
After all of those steps, I finally turn to the rote memorization. I like to take the poem one line at a time. I read a line, close my eyes, and try to repeat it from memory. If I fail, I do it again, and if I’m having a lot of trouble, I’ll break the lines into even smaller segments.
- Combine lines.
When I start feeling comfortable with individual lines, I then practice working on multiple lines together. I make sure not to focus too much on any one part of the poem. When I first started memorizing poems, I found myself working more on the beginning of a poem than on the ending, so now I make a conscious effort to distribute my efforts more evenly.
- Visualize the poem.
As I combine lines, I try to visualize what the poem is describing. This helps me remember the overall structure of the poem, learning where the individual lines I memorized fit together. This step works best for poems with a strong narrative, and not so well for more abstract poetry.
- Practice reciting orally and writing the poem.
As I practice repeating a poem, I alternate between reciting it aloud and typing it out in a blank document on my computer. By switching between these techniques, I’m helping activate different parts of my memory, which work together to solidify the poem. Saying the poem aloud helps most with rhythm, rhyme, and meter. Typing the poem helps me learn punctuation and unique spelling.
- Repeat to yourself throughout the day.
After I’ve finished memorizing a poem for the first time, I make sure to repeat it to myself several more times throughout the day. This makes sure that I get it into my long-term memory. I then do my best to return to each poem I’ve learned every week or so, to refresh my memory and brush up on any sections I’m starting to forget.
Memorizing poetry is difficult, but incredibly rewarding. I hope that through these tips you’re able to make the process a little easier on yourself so that you can enjoy the hobby as much as I do.