26 April 2018

National Poetry Month: How to Memorize a Poem

I think National Poetry Month1 grows more important with each coming year, because poetry gives us a reason to stop, to listen. In such a loud world it is hard to tune out the din, but poetry has an uncanny ability to condense turmoil into something peaceful. 

April 26th is Poem in Your Pocket Day and we’ve loved this idea for many years2, but why not take it a little further this year? Why not, instead of just carrying around a poem in your pocket, carry it around in your mind. Carry around a deep, complex, intricate, peaceful moment.

I’ve been reciting and memorizing verse for almost as long as I can remember, everything from ditties to Shakespeare’s soliloquies. The first poem I memorized, I was nine, was Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening3; I can still remember it, nine years later. 

More recently, I memorize any poem that moves me enough to want to keep with me. Like William Ernest Henley’s Invictus4, it’s a good one for hard days, a great confidence booster. And Sara Kay’s Point B5, a powerful poem that embraces life and its vastness in a mere matter of words.

And after all this time memorizing and reciting, poetry I have inadvertently developed a memorizing process. There are a few steps for ingraining a poem into your mind; so jump in, and immerse yourself in poetry.

Choosing a poem:
This may be the most difficult step because there are many poems, many poets, many topics. It can be hard to figure out where to start. 
Start with what you know. Make a list of the poets and poetry you are familiar with. If you are completely new to the world of poetry, make a list of topics that impassion you (nature, or justice, or sadness). 
Then do your research. Go to the library, find the reference desk or look for the poetry section, look through the books, listen for poems that grab you especially. Or you can also search for poems on websites like the Poetry Foundation6
Memorizing a poem really only works when you get to know a poem, really know a poem. There are two ways to become familiar with a particular piece of work.
Read yourself between the lines. How do you fit into the poem? By a feeling, a desire, a memory? Imagine yourself inside the poem, try to “become one with the poem”. 
Translate. Some poems are written in language different from our everyday speech. So take ten minutes to translate the poem into words you’d use in your daily life. For example, here is a section of Helena’s monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream I’ve “interpreted”:
Original text: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, love can transpose to form and dignity. Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.”
My interpretation: Love can make terrible things into some of  the best qualities. And that’s probably because love is blind.
Memorizing a poem is a process. Once you have a poem and feel comfortable with it you are ready to memorize.
Split the poem into reasonable sized chunks. Separate the poem into sections between 2 and 6 lines long. If the poem has clear stanzas, separate it by those. Stanzas are usually four or more lines, but sometimes they are less. And with poems that rhyme, splitting this way can really help.  
Memorize one section per day (or in any other time unit you would like, but days work best). You can write the section down repeatedly, recite it in your head, recite it out loud. By the evening you should be able to know what you’ve memorized inside and out. 
Record yourself reciting the poem. You can voice or video record yourself reciting the poem as you go and listen to, or watch, it, over and over. This is a mental and more interactive version of rote memorization, and I’ve found that it works better. 
Add on.On day two, once you’ve memorized the day’s section recite all the parts of the poem you have in your head. On the last day of memorizing you’ll be reciting the entire poem.
Now, if you want to retain the poem, for a long time, you’ll have to recite it often, to yourself, or to others. So, weeks and months and years after you’ve initially memorized, come back and remember why you chose to make this poem a part of you.

This is a process that I’ve found to be successful, but you can also find your own way. In fact, please find your own way, because poetry is a very personal thing, it helps make sense of all the vastness, the beauty, and the pain around us. 

Poet, activist, librarian, Audre Lorde articulates how important all this poetical expansiveness is in her Essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury7

“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” 

Written by Nadia Daniels-Moehle,
produced and edited by Amy Daniels-Moehle


1. National Poetry Month
2. BFWP: Put a Poem in Your Pocket Challenge 
3. Robert Frost, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
4. William Ernest Henley, Invictus
5. Sara Kay's Ted Talk "If I Should Have A Daughter..."
6. Poetry Foundation
7. Audre Lorde, "Poetry is Not a Luxury" from the collection of essays and speeches Sister Outsider.