How To Memorize Poetry
You either love it or hate it. Poetry is one of those things that if you love it, it can be pretty easy to go about memorizing. But if you hate it, or just don’t connect with a particular piece, it can be downright nasty.
Your whole life you’ve probably approached memorizing poetry by just repeating lines and phrases over and over and over and over and over (and over!) again until it sticks. That definitely works but a). it’s extremely inefficient and b). it’ll make you want to gouge your eyes out from boredom. Memory techniques are the way to go. Don’t believe me? Ask Ed Cooke, UK memory grandmaster. He used them to memorize massive portions of the epic poem “Paradise Lost,” a monster of a poem that has 10,000+ individual lines of verse. Ouch. I’ve also used the same techniques to memorize 50 line poems in 15 minutes (in competition), some easy and fun, some abstract and boring.
There are a few ways to go about memorizing text. The first, is to do it rotely – by pure repetition. If you have the time and you enjoy torture, this is the method for you. But I dont recommend it at all. Because….torture is not fun. It’s torture.
The second approach is to use a journey or memory palace to store pieces of the text. Once you’ve wisened up and decided to use this approach, there’s a bit of personal preference that comes into play: how much information should I store at each loci? Each and every word? Groups of words? Lines? Verses? Key words and topics here and there? Opinions may differ given that some people are better at remembering different amounts of things. For this blog post I’m going to share my personal preferences since it has allowed me to be pretty successful at it – I tied the USA record for memorizing the most lines of a poem this past year (given the fact that I actually hate memorizing poetry, text, or lyrics, I’d say that’s pretty good; check out my graded papers below).
The first thing you need to do is figure out where you want to store the poem in your mind. That will depend on what you plan to do with the poem once it’s memorized. Is it for a school assignment (once it’s performed it can be forgotten) or is it for long term use (you want to remember it forever)? If you want to remember it forever I suggest creating a new journey specifically for storing this one poem; a journey that you well never re-use for anything else. If it’s something you don’t plan on keeping for longer than you have to, you can just use any journey that you have in your arsenal. For those of you who don’t know, a journey is any familiar place that you can picture in your mind. These journeys are made up of anchor points or distinct “stops” along a specific path around the journey. The size of your journey (how many anchor points) that you decide to use should depend on the length of the poem and how you plan on compressing groups of words into images. We’ll talk about that more later.
I’m going to use a stanza from Shell Silverstein’s “One Inch Tall” poem because it’s fun and easy to visualize. And that’s just the thing…if you’re memorizing a poem that you connect with and is easy to understand and picture, then the less images-for-words you need, maybe even just one image per line or half-line. The more abstract the poem gets, the more images-for-words you’ll need since larger phrases of words will be more complex to visualize — you’ll need to break it down. Again, this is my approach – me being someone who doesn’t find much beauty in lyrical words (I prefer music….sorry!).
So that we’re all on the same page, let’s all use the same journey to memorize the first few lines of this poem. Our journey will be a path through America. Starting in Miami, then DC, Philly, NYC, Boston, Chicago, Denver, San Fran, LA, Honolulu. All iconic US cities (with easy to picture “sceneries”, right? Miami – beach, DC – the White House, Philly – the Liberty Bell, NYC – the Empire State Building, Boston – a harbor, Chicago – the Sears Tower, Denver – some mountains, San Fran – Lumbard Street, LA – the Hollywood sign, and Honolulu – a volcano). You can remember the journey’s path because it’s just up the east coast, then across to the west. Got it? GOOD.
Here’s the first stanza of the poem:
If you were only one inch tall, you’d ride a worm to school.
The teardrop of a crying ant would be your swimming pool.
A crumb of cake would be a feast
And last you seven days at least,
A flea would be a frightening beast
If you were one inch tall.
First things first. Re-read the stanza. Dive into it and imagine it being the story of your life. Really try to visualize it. As you read across the words, imagine a movie playing simultaneously in your mind displaying it all. This is what I always do first. It helps me build a basis for what the poem is about and it helps me figure out the structure of the lines, meter, and rhyming scheme. Next, start coming up with images for the words and storing along your journey.
In this particular poem, the lines are kind of long, so I’m going to split them in half. The first thing we want to memorize is:
“If you were only one inch tall,”
We are standing in Miami on the beach (our first anchor point) and we need to picture this phrase happening there. Easy. Actually picture yourself on the beach as if you were only one inch tall! That will only give you the gist of the phrase, so you might add an image for “if,” to get deeper into the specific wording. When I see the word if, I imagine the Chateaux d’If from the Count of Monte Cristo movie. So, plop goes the Chateaux d’If on Miami Beach and I am only one inch tall in comparison. To remember the word “only” I might put emphasis on the fact that I am the ONLY person on the beach, no one else in sight. One thing to take note of is the subject of the poem: you. Everything is about you. You just need to be aware of that. If you were only one inch tall. What about the comma? I have pre-set actions for all punctuation. That way, when I see a punctuation mark I immediately have an image for it to throw into the mix. A comma is the action of falling, a period is any type of bloody violence, a semi-colon is the action of mopping the floor, etc. So to remember that there was a comma at the end of the phrase, I would picture my small one inch self falling over next to the Chateaux. Done. Next.
“you’d ride a worm to school.”
I’m in DC by the White House (second anchor point). For this, I’m going to picture myself riding a worm up to the White House (which kinda looks like a super fancy school). Period at the end? I need to add violence there. Maybe a sniper takes me out as I approach the front door of the White House.
“The teardrop of a crying ant”
Now at the Liberty Bell, imagine a massive teardrop coming from a crying ant. Simple enough.
“would be your swimming pool.”
At the Empire State Building, picture a wooden bee in a swimming pool. Why a wooden bee? To help you remember “would be.” It’s not the same spelling but it will remind you enough of what it is properly….and it’s weird and random, exactly the kind of thing you remember best.
“A crumb of cake would be a feast”
Sometimes you feel confident and you go for a whole line in one image. Imagine being in a harbor (Boston), and picture a crumb of cake being feasted upon by that same wooden bee.
“And last you seven days at least,”
Now at the Sears Tower, we have a pretty difficult line to imagine. So we might want to split it in half.
“And last you”
For “And” and “Or” I have preset images. “And” is a circle and “Or” is a square. I’m at the Sear’s Tower standing on a circular platform (representing the “and”) and I’m last in line to get into the building, I’m singing “Supaman dat hoe” – hence the “YOUUUUUU”. That may not make sense to you, but that’s okay. Come up with your own image for “you”….or just be aware that the poem is about you; that might be all you need.
“seven days at least,”
On a mountain in Denver, I’m gonna imagine I have to camp 7 days out in the wilderness AT LEAST, then I fall down the mountain (that’s the comma).
“A flea would be a frightening beast”
At Lumbard Street, the bassist from Red Hot Chilli Peppers (his name is Flea) is being stung by that wooden be and he’s screaming “a frightening beast!!!” as he runs down the famous winding road.
“If you were one inch tall.”
Down to the Hollywood sign in LA, same line as the first, minus the “only” word. Picture the exact same thing as you stand under the sign. Don’t forget the period!
Voila. We didn’t even need to go to Honolulu! Now try, without scrolling up, to see if you remember all of the images (they don’t have to be exact, just roughly what was happening at each anchor point). Some may have been easier to remember the exact words, others may have been difficult (but maybe you still remembered the images). Don’t worry. That’s okay. Go through it again if you must. The crucial part for me once I’ve done the encoding of words to images, is to write it down on paper. For some reason, writing it down at this point adds a different dimension of visualization that helps with recall. As I write it down from memory, I’ll keep the poem next to me for viewing but I will only use it as a seldom crutch in case I encounter any gaps. Once I’ve written it down once or twice, the poem is cemented into my mind.
Everyone is different, so experiment a little bit to see what works best for you – memorizing smaller or larger pieces, memorizing key words here and there and then mixing it with a bit of rote repetition, whatever!
Making it verbally fluid from that point on isn’t always as easy. Remember, these techniques get information into your memory fast, but doesn’t necessarily make the access instantaneous….at least not at first. Once you have it in your brain though, the nice thing is that you can review it as often as you want (just mentally travel through the US!). To make the reciting seamless is where the real practice comes in. You’ll have to take what you just stored in your mind and convert into muscle memory. This is something that just takes repetition. As you continue to perform your poem out loud, it will eventually become a single fluid thought, and you’ll always have the basic rubrique in your mind in case you stumble.
There you go. That’s how the USA Memory Champion memorizes poetry. BAM.