5 Keys to Memorizing Poetry

I eat my peas with honey.
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny.
But, it keeps them on the knife.

This is the one of the first poems I remember memorizing. My mom used to recite it us at dinner when she served peas with our meatloaf.

(We did not paste our peas to our knife with honey. Actually, my brothers secreted their peas to our salivating Schnauzers under the table.)

Most of us grew up reciting ingrained nursery rhymes to music:



Memorizing little ditties came easy to us in those days. Especially if they came with a tune, or hand movements, or a jump rope.

But what good is memorizing anything after we graduate high school?

After the time’s tables are fixed in our brains, and we can recite the Preamble to the Constitution, and maybe some of the Gettysburg Address, we think we’re done jamming information into our cerebellum or hippocampus or wherever we stuff our memories. Or if we get advanced degrees, we study for the tests and (some of us) promptly release that info into the atmosphere and wave goodbye as it meanders on the windwaves and then temporarily leeches onto someone else’s brain for another test at another school.

Heck, we don’t even have to memorize phone numbers anymore. We live in an I world with information at our fingertips. Who needs to memorize?

Not so fast.

This week Barbara O’Neal at Writer Unboxed wrote about The Powerful Nutrition of Poetry acknowledging that memorizing poetry is healthy. As healthy as taking your daily Robert Frost Gummy Vitamins.

Hallelujah! Memorizing poetry can make us smarter by enriching our gray matter. Which translates into making us better problem solvers, increasing our creativity, elevating our-thinking-on-our-feet ability, and frankly, making us more interesting.

But, honestly . . .

I don’t know anyone who likes to memorize. I don’t remember the last time I memorized a poem. Memorizing is fatiguing. Boring. And seemingly without reward.

But, on the flip side, if it will nourish my brain then I’m all in. (Four aunts and mom with Alzheimer’s. I’m looking for the cure and if poetry is it . . . I’m not that naïve.)

But, I will try.

I like tools. I like step-by-step game plans. I like easy. I like learning from the pros.

So I asked myself, who would know more about memorizing than actors?

In this article about the secret to actor’s memories, Michael Pennington insists that “Repetition, repetition, repetition.” works best.

Lesson: write out the poem on an index card. Read the poem. OUTLOUD.

He recommends acrostics and mnemonics that associate troublesome passages with a memorable story. Try to correspond lines of poetry with the story of the poem instead of learning word by word.

Lesson: Don’t focus on learning it word by word.

We memorize best “through chunks, phrases and patterns, often hammered into place by metre or by rhyme.”

Lesson: Learn chunks, phrases, and patterns.

Actor Lenny Henry advises to write down your lines, at least 10 times. Moving around also helps to fix the words.

I can attest to this. I once tried memorizing a large chunk of Greek literature. I wrote it on index cards and paced the basement, recalling a tidbit of something from a Kinesiology class. Some of us learn better when we fiddle or jitter and move around and fire up the neurons in our brain.

Lesson: Get Kinetic.

If you can, set the poem to music. Remember how we learned nursery rhymes? Make up actions, hand movements, get out your jump rope or hula hoop. If you know sign language, utilize your skills. If the poem doesn’t rhyme, try to find the patterns and connect them visually, orally, and audibly.

Here are the 5 Keys:

5 keys to memorizing poety

Encouragingly, Pennington notes that the actor Dame Gwen Ffrangeon-Davies, who lived to the age of 101, never ceased to commit fresh lines to memory.” She would learn a new piece of poetry every day until she died. It has to be good for the brain.”

If memorizing a poem a day has been helpful for a dame . . .  that’s good enough for me.

I’ll start Monday.

After my diet.

What about you? Do you memorize poetry? Have any other tips? How has it helped you?


Additional Reading: Poetry by Heart competition


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