Poetry Memorization is a Disappearing Skill
Memorization and recitation of poetry were once standard parts of children’s education. Over the past century though, poetry has been steadily disappearing from the classroom curriculum. Although it varies from school to school, and country to country, students are generally reading less poetry and rarely being asked to memorize or recite it.
I went to school in the nineties and the very early 2000s, and as far as I can remember, I only ever had to memorize one poem throughout my entire education. I spoke with my parents, who grew up in the sixties, and they remembered a similar lack of poetry. In contrast, for my grandparents’ generation, memorizing poetry was a regular part of their education.
My family’s experiences mirror the broader trend throughout the United States — and most of the world — during the 20th century: the de-emphasis of poetry in education. These days, most of us have grown up without ever really learning to memorize poetry in school. As a consequence, few of us even consider memorizing poetry as adults.
My Decision to Memorize Poetry
I’ve been a fan of poetry for most of my adult life, but I’m normally a less-than-ideal reader. I have a bad habit of reading through books of poetry quickly, treating them as if they are prose. I read each poem once, rarely stopping to think about the meaning or struggle with a difficult line.
This year I decided to make a conscious effort to work through more difficult books and rush my reading less. (I’ve written more about this experience here). As part of that effort, I decided to approach poetry more carefully as well. Instead of sweeping through entire collections of poetry in a day, I’d examine a single poem at a time, pausing to think about the meaning of each line, and consulting outside explanations when I felt like something was going over my head.
Without even trying, I began to memorize short snippets of poems, just from spending so much time concentrating on them. I was only remembering a few words in a row, not even entire lines, but it inspired me to try memorizing longer sections, and eventually entire poems.
I found a wonderful, curated collection of poetry on poets.org called Committed to Memory, which is a book of poems that are great for beginners to memorize. The book is available for free on poets.org, so I highly recommend checking it out. (A few poems have been removed from the original collection though, presumably for copyright reasons).
With the help of that collection, I’ve managed to memorize quite a few poems now, and it’s been a wonderful experience. I work on just a couple of lines at a time, slowly building towards an entire poem over the course of a week or more. I’m still sticking to mostly shorter poems, like sonnets, but I plan to make the jump to longer poems soon. The memorization is a difficult process, but very rewarding.
Why You Should Memorize Poetry Too
I’ve been surprised by just how much I’ve gotten out of memorizing poems, and I would recommend the experience to everyone who has even the smallest interest in poetry. (Maybe even to those who don’t.)
The first thing that I noticed about memorizing poems is that it really helps me understand the poems on a level that I never would have gotten from just reading them. In order to memorize a poem well, you have to spend a lot of time with every single word in your mind. This forces you to think carefully about the meaning of the poem both piece-by-piece and as a whole. If you’re like me, you’ll also find yourself looking up more and more explanations and critical readings of the poems, which will help you understand it even better.
Memorizing poetry has also given me a way to entertain myself when waiting in lines and on drives. In the early stages of memorization, you’ll need the poem right in front of you. As you get better though, you’ll be able to run through all or most of the poem in your head. Each time you repeat it to yourself, it’ll be etched deeper into your memory. A long car ride is a perfect time for this.
The time I’ve spent learning to memorize poems has also seemed to help my memory in general. I’m finding myself better able to quote things I’ve heard on television and remember the lyrics to songs (something I’ve never been good at). Memorizing poetry seems to be rewiring my brain for the better.
A final benefit is just having the poems in my head, as a source of knowledge and inspiration to turn to. At the end of a long, hard run, when I’m out of breath and my legs are turning to jelly, remembering the perfect line of poetry is sometimes just what I need to keep going.
Whether you’re convinced or still skeptical, I strongly encourage you to try poetry memorization for yourself. It only takes a few minutes of practice a day, and since so many classic poems are in the public domain, you don’t have to spend a dime on books.
If you’re not sure where to get started, try “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus. It holds a special place in my heart as the first poem I memorized. It’s in the public domain, so I’ll reproduce it here:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”