Why?Before we even get to the first poem, the first question is, Why memorize poetry?
Starting with the short answer, check out Jeff Cobb's 7 Reasons to Memorize Some Poetry. Even shorter are Poetry X's reasons for memorizing poems: It becomes a part of you, it's a great way to better understand a favorite poem, and it's little different from memorizing those song lyrics you find stuck in your head. Not long ago, over on his blog, Jonathan discussed his personal reasons for memorizing poetry.
There is so much value in memorizing poetry that it has been discussed in much more detail. Most notably, Jim Holt's NYTimes article, Got Poetry? vividly describes the process of learning a poem:
The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.In Defense of Memorization and learning poetry by heart also offer excellent insights for reasons to memorize poetry.
This isn't just something that should be limited to adults, either. Not only should children learn to memorize poetry, they're probably better equipped than adults to do so. In their article, Jesse Wise and Susan Wise Bauer talk about what children can learn from the memorization of poetry. gotpoetry's Why Children Should Memorize Poetry article, by comparison, talks about how to get children involved and interested!
How?OK, I hear you say, I want to memorize poetry, but how do I go about it?
The first method of memorizing poetry I really latched onto, which I've discussed before, is this approach taught by JJ Hayes. Longtime readers will remember that I was so impressed with this method, I developed a web app called Verbatim to help memorize poetry using this approach (See an overview here, and see more detailed tutorials here).
On a personal side note, I'm currently using Verbatim to memorize Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven by Halloween.
Ron White, in the video below, teaches an image-based technique that can be used in memorizing poems:
Author Ted Hughes, in his book By Heart: 101 Poems and How to Remember Them, teaches a sort of cross between these two methods. One creative and vivid image per line or stanza is used to help remember their general concept, while learning the exact words in done using the former method. A variation of this mixed approach is also taught by Ami Mattison.
You'll notice that, regardless of the approach, breaking the poem up into smaller pieces is key. Also key are privacy and focus. Jough Dempsey empahsizes these points in his article, How to Memorize a Poem.
What?What pieces should you memorize? Once the previous questions are settled, this becomes the important question.
The answer is a very personal choice. Like the exact method of memorizing, I can only make recommendations, and it's up to you to find what works for you.
If you're just starting to memorize poetry, it only makes sense to choose simpler and shorter poems. The aforementioned book By Heart features choices especially made for poetry memorizers, as does the book Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize.
The online world is full of excellent sources, too. Good starter pieces can be found at Poems to Memorize & Memorable Poems, Easy Poems to Memorize, and Poems to Memorize, Recite, and Learn by Heart.
If you prefer video as a way of finding a good poem, check out these video poem playlists, which I first mentioned back in April:
• Classic Poetry
• Poetry from UBS ads (as discussed in this blog entry)
• Nipsey Russell's comedic poems
• Some non-classic but interesting poems
• Poems from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (As performed by the cast of the musical CATS)
• Poems from Martin Gardner's Best Remembered Poems
There are many fine websites that specialize in poems, both modern and classic. My favorite poetry sites include (in no particular order): Poetry X, Famous Poets and Poems, Poem Hunter, and Kenn Nesbitt's Poetry 4 Kids.
For some great free ebooks of poetry for your mobile devices, some of the older choices, from the days when poetry memorization was more common, may ironically be the best choice. Poems Every Child Should Know was a popular reference around the turn of 20th century, and is also available in an audio version for free. It even spawned a sequel by Rudyard Kipling, Kipling Stories and Poems Every Child Should Know, Book II.
You might also enjoy Poems for memorizing, Selections for memorizing complete: books one, two and three (A 1911 New York textbook for grades 1-8), and It Can Be Done: Poems of Inspiration.
Have you ever tried memorizing poetry? I'd love to hear about your experiences, recommendations, and thoughts in the comments!