Memorization gets a bad rap these days. When criticizing a class, students often say something like, “It’s just a lot of memorization!” We equate memorization with busy work, something tedious that has no purpose. But many of the longest and greatest works of literature—such as Beowulf and the Iliad—existed entirely in memorized form before they were written down. Is there still a point to memorizing poetry even after the invention of writing?
I’d argue yes. I love memorizing poetry, even though it can be hard. Here are a few reasons why I think it’s worth it to commit poems to memory.
Memorizing poetry is like a workout for your brain.
My high school was big on memorization, at least compared with some. I don’t think we over-emphasized it, but it was fairly common to be assigned a poetry memorization in English class or a famous speech in history. I appreciated these assignments, because not only were they easy A’s if you put in the effort, but they stretched my brain. I developed new strategies for memorization, and I was able to figure out what worked best for me. That was a major help when it came to memorizing my senior thesis! (I had an outline to help me, but I still had to memorize major swaths of my 20-minute speech word for word.) All the little memorizations along the way prepared me for this big one, as well as strengthening my memory in general! If you have a job or hobby that requires you to memorize things, such as being a lawyer or actor, I’d recommend memorizing poetry as a way to stretch your brain muscles.
Memorizing poetry helps you in class and in life.
I know this is a pretty utilitarian point of view, but if you have a test coming up on the metaphysical poets, wouldn’t it be a good idea to memorize some John Donne? Teachers and professors are impressed when you whip out a direct quotation from memory, and it’ll make your essay stronger. The same principle applies to memorizing something like the Gettysburg Address before the AP history exam. Of course, if you’re religious, memorizing prayers and scriptures from your religion is also a good idea, both for your own spiritual life and in your conversations with others. And if you’re learning a new language, why not memorize a poem in your target language? Last year, I copied out “Soneto a Cristo Crucificado” and taped it to the wall by my bed. With fairly little effort, I memorized a beautiful poem and reinforced my Spanish vocabulary and grammar, all in one go! There’s really no limit to the applications of memorization.
I don’t have to open a book to read my favorite poems!
My English teacher from junior year once said that memorizing poems is like decorating the walls of your mind. I love being able to look around my “mind palace” and see all my favorite poems! I vividly remember two years ago, when I had to get a root canal, I sat in the dentist’s chair with my mouth wrenched open for what felt like hours, running through “God’s Grandeur,” “Sonnet on his Blindness,” and “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” countless times. It really helped with tuning out the sound of the drill and ignoring the clouds of dust from my own tooth. Some of the other poems I have (and still have) memorized include:
- The opening lines of the Canterbury Tales (in the Old English!)
- “Because I could not stop for Death” and “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson
- The “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth
- Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29 and Sonnet #116
- …and I just finished memorizing Richard Wilbur’s “Still, Citizen Sparrow”
Tips for memorizing poetry:
I know it can be hard to carve out time to memorize a poem, but if you break it up and keep it low-key, it becomes very doable. Here are some strategies I use when I want to memorize a poem.
- Write it out a few times. You’d be amazed at how little time this takes and how effective it is.
- Make an outline of the poem and try to fill in the gaps yourself. Or write the first letter of each word of the poem—for example, if you’re trying to memorize the line “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” you’d write “W i d w f a m e.” Then practice saying the poem from that. It’s a weird method, but it works.
- Record yourself saying it, and listen to the recording on a loop while you’re doing something else. This is a great time-saver for busy people. I used to do this while I showered. I’m pretty sure it drove the rest of my family crazy, but it became my favorite memorization technique.
- Copy out the poem and tape it to your wall. Read it aloud before you go to bed. If you’re artistic (or if you’re not), you can illustrate the poem or do pretty lettering for the title. This is a good strategy for those who don’t have a deadline in mind because it can take a while to work, but it’s probably the easiest, most painless way to memorize a poem. Plus, you get a decoration for your wall!
What do you think? Do you memorize poetry? What are some poems that you have (or would like to have) memorized? Let me know in comments!