Memorizing Poetry

What is more cultured then being able to quote a few lines of poetry?  We see it happen in movies all the time, and I’m sure we all have the friend who makes themselves look super smart by dropping a line or two in the middle of a conversation.

Not to mention, it would make Mr. Keating very proud of you.

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The idea of memorizing poetry probably takes you back to 5th grade, trying to slog your way through a poem you care nothing about.  You might think it’s hard, but I say if you can have the entire soundtrack of Hamilton memorized or can perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” on cue, you can memorize a few lines of poetry.

Aside from making yourself sound cultured, why should you memorize poetry?  Here are three reasons:

  1. It will improve your language skills. Poetry plays with word usage, grammar, syntax, metaphors, and similies.  You can discover new patterns, new words, and new ways of communicating.
  2. Exercise for your brain! Memorization and recall it is good for your mind, and soon you’ll be able to remember more things – birthdays, ideas, appointments, etc.
  3. Author’s Intent and Personal Meaning will surface. Have you ever watched a movie for the 2nd time and noticed things you didn’t notice the first time? What about the 5th or 10th time you’ve seen that movie?  The more you read and think about a poem the more you will discover about it.

In the end, don’t take my word for it. Check out this article in The New Yorker for more information.

Now, how do we go about memorizing poetry? Well, it’s not too different than memorizing a song.

  1. Choose carefully. Don’t set your heart on memorizing a Shakespearean monologue right out of the gate. That’s the easiest way to get discouraged. There are plenty of short poems – 10 lines or less – for you to practice memorizing.
  2. Repetition. Yep, sometimes you just need to read it aloud over and over again. Soon enough, you’ll find a rhythm and cadence that works for you and you’ll begin reciting it the same time every time.
  3. Listen to it. Find someone reading it aloud on YouTube or record yourself saying it, then listen to it.  Listen to it and recite along with it. That, after all, is how we memorize songs, right?  I got the better part of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech memorized just from watching this scene in Renaissance Man (1994).
  4. Find the message. What is the poem saying? It’s easier to connect the lines to each other when you understand what the poem is saying.  You can rap “Cabinet Battle #1” because you understand what the characters are saying and understand their trains of thought. This makes recall so much easier.

Let’s put this into practice.  My poem for this month is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (WordPress is giving me trouble with formatting the poem, but there’s nothing wrong with giving the Poetry Foundation a little extra traffic!)

There are several possible meanings to this poem. On the surface, it just seems like this guy is riding through the woods on a winter evening, enjoying the view.  Some people think it’s a metaphor for death or suicide.  One might even argue it’s about Santa Claus (a man driving through a snowy scene on the darkest night of the year? Sounds legit.). I don’t want to talk too much about that because I don’t want my or others’ interpretation of the poem to color yours.

Here are some other short poems you can try:

Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Risk” by Anaïs Nin

First Fig” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Harlem” by Langston Hughes

The Purple Cow” by Gelett Burgess

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