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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Memorizing Poems

Do you memorize poetry?

I've been meaning to memorize 100 poems for a few years now...I read somewhere how important it was to learn the rhythm of poems by memorizing them, by carrying them around with you. I read that 100 poems was a worthy goal. It does sound like good training for a poet-wanna-be, but so far I've only memorized two. Which I am ashamed to admit. I think I have heretofore resisted because I grew up in a home where I was forced to memorize scriptures. My father even laminated certain verses and hung them in the shower so we could study while soaping up. And so I have been a bit resistant to memorization, which I am now releasing. I will now embrace memorizing text that I myself want to memorize.

Furthermore, since committing to read Moby Dick on this blog got me to do it within a month, I am committing here and now on this very same blog to memorizing 100 poems. But not in a month, not even in a year. It's going to be a long-term project, but I can (and will) commit to memorizing one per month at a minimum until I get to 100. Here it is in black and white. On my blog. And you may call me on it. Anytime.

So how about you? Do you memorize poems, and if so why? And do you have any recommendations for which poems I should memorize?

The two that I have so far are On Angels by Czeslaw Milosz (which I don't recommend for memorization because there is not much in the way of rhyme or meter to help) and Robert Frost's Fire and Ice (which I have to admit I memorized without even trying in junior high school, and I shared a bedroom with a sister six years younger than myself, and I forced her to memorize it too...I would not let her sleep at night until she said it...don't ask me why, I don't know...but in college she was asked to write a paper on this very poem and she wrote it about her wacky sister making her memorize it so my efforts didn't go to waste).

Here's an article from Jim Holt in the New York Times Book Review about his commitment to memorizing poems (he was at about 100 when this article was written 2 1/2 years ago). His tip is: "the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast..." His reasoning for this practice is: "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....And it’s a cheap pleasure." And he quotes Robert Pinsky as saying, "I wonder if anyone who has memorized a lot of poetry . . . can fail to write coherent sentences and paragraphs."

And here's a recent article in Slate by Robert Pinsky about how he misremembered a Yeat's poem, and what he learned about creative writing from trying to fill in the blank himself until he could get to a bookstore to find (and be stunned by) the actual word he had forgotten. It was this article that got me thinking about memorization today...

I'd love to hear from you blog-readers about poems you have memorized, and what you think about memorization in general.

And, I will post in a day or two which poem I am starting on next. To keep me accountable. Here I go....

Oh, and if anybody wants to join me and make a memorization commitment (but I'm not pushing...wouldn't want to push, having been on the receiving end), that would be great. Go ahead and post it in the comments section, if you are so inclined.


Chris said...

Years ago I tried to memorize lots of Shakespeare. What I remember is learn it backwards: learn the last part first and then back up and add to it. That way when you are learning new lines, you are entering familar territory.


Jessica Goodfellow said...

Chris, that's a great tip. I'm starting out with shorter, more manageable poems, but when I get a little more ambitious, I'm definitely going to try this. Thanks!

Perogyo said...

That's a pretty good goal. I see how memorising books helps my kids with their language skills, and rhymes are the easiest ones for them to do.

I'm ashamed to say that unless nursery rhymes count I only have memorised two- one is Angel by Aleksandr Pushkin (in Russian- the only poem I learned in a 4 month poetry class!) and John McRae's In Flanders Fields, which I think every Canadian also knows by heart.

I think I'll start as well. 100 is probably pushing it for me, so maybe my goal will be ten new poems, and one at least will be in Japanese.

Jessica Goodfellow said...


I hadn't even thought of memorizing a poem in Japanese. Thanks for that great idea! I'm also going to incorporate it into my goal of 100 poems. And you already know a poem in!

As for the goal, I haven't set a time limit. By the time I die, I guess. Or just however long it takes, at one per month minimum (okay, that would be 8+ years...)

And like you, I can see the benefits of my kids memorizing and reciting Japanese stories, even though at first I balked at the constant repetition of the same story for weeks and weeks.

I've also already begun to understand how memorizing poetry causes me to look more closely at word choice. This morning I was reciting a poem to myself, and couldn't remember if the poet had written "now and then" or "now and again." I thought about the subtle differences in tone and meaning, the rhythm that each brought to the line, which I would have chosen, etc. all before looking up to see which it was Robert Hass chose as a translation for Czeslaw Milosz's work (it was "now and then" by the way). What an interesting in-depth lesson word choice that one doesn't get by simply reading through a poem.

Perogyo said...

Wow, I think that this little project could be better than I thought. I am a translator by trade, and although I don't translate literary works by any means, I am trying to be more professional as I work towards being an advanced translator. Word choice really plays a part in being better at my job. Although it's not poetry, I am happy when I can get the flow right in English.

Don't be too impressed about the Russian poem. Four years of Russian in university and all I have left is that poem and a bunch of words for "cheers." ;)

Shawnte said...

Making a recording of the poem that you can listen to periodically is a great way to memorize. Play it while you're driving in the car or doing laundry.

Like they way your brain can play back songs that you've heard often.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Medea, still impressed with the Russian poem...and yes, I can see how important word choice is for translators, so memorizing poems might be a fruitful exercise for you. Let us know!

Jessica Goodfellow said...

What a great idea. An almost-subliminal way to work on memorization. Thanks! I will try it.