Miskatonic University Press

Poems to Memorize

Posted: 18 January 2011

Over the last year or more I’ve been memorizing poems, learning them by heart. It’s a lot of fun, far more than I ever guessed before I began. I put together Poems to Memorize as an EPUB ebook containing all the poems I know, and I’m making it available in case anyone else is interested. (Poems under copyright are listed by title, but the actual poems aren’t there. You can find them easily enough online.) I’ll keep it updated as I add to it. I use this as a quick reference on my Android phone when I’m learning a new poem or get stuck trying to recall an old one.

I began to memorize poems because I felt like my memory was going. Not because of age or dementia, but because I wasn’t spending enough time concentrating and focusing: too much of my time was taken up with short bursts and quick hits of information. I was reading less, what I was reading wasn’t as long as it had been, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d sat on the sofa and read an entire book in one go. (Books like Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher (Globe and Mail review) and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr talk about all of this, and I recommend both.)

I decided to do something to work on my memory. I needed a challenge. I needed to test it. Why not learn some poetry off by heart? I’ve never forgotten a story my mother told me. She illustrates, and sometimes writes, children’s books. In 1993 she illustrated Realms of Gold: Myths and Legends from Around the World (written by Ann Pilling, and a fine book, though now out of print). Once she was out walking with a friend and mentioned that she was working on this book. When she heard mentioned the title, the friend launched into a recitation of a poem, doing the whole thing from heart. It was, I realized later, On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, by John Keats:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(That’s a sonnet: fourteen lines, here structured ABBA ABBA CDCDCD. The Guardian published a history and analysis of the poem that explains the background of the poem, why Keats wrote it, and what it’s about.)

I was amazed: a few words jogged her memory and she was able to recite the entire poem! Imagine, having all that at your disposal! My mother’s friend was Scottish and had grown up there in the forties and fifties, with a very different education than I’d had. I’d never had to memorize a poem. I’d never had to read Keats. My knowledge of poetry was pitiful.

I decided I was finally going to learn this poem. It took about ten days.

My secret memorization technique? The shower. I printed it off, laminated the paper, and stuck it up in my shower. I started by repeating the first two lines, several times, until I thought I knew them. I’d repeat them through the day. The next day, I added two more lines. Then two more. Because it rhymed, it was easier than I’d thought, but it was non-trivial: I often had to check a copy I carried with me. But soon I had it all in my head.

Having the poem at my instant recall like that was an incredible experience. I could pull up a line or two whenever I needed it, to add a rhetorical flourish into my conversation. Knowing it so well I began to understand it more, to live with it, and the more it became a part of me, the more appreciation I had for it. It’s an astounding poem.

One by one I’ve learned more poems (and one song):

“Dover Beach” was a tough one to learn. A character in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday recites it from heart, which when I read the book seemed like an impossible task, but eventually I learned it. It was a joy when the last lines settled in place and the whole poem was mine. I was able to recite it, impromptu, standing on the shore of Lake Ontario at Niagara-on-the-Lake at midnight as the waves crashed in, the United States just across the river and Toronto’s lights shining in the distance. Knowing the poem made that night all the more powerful.

The Case for Memorizing Poetry, by Jim Holt, from The New York Times, tells a similar story to mine. He’s learned many more poems than I have so far. You should try it too! You probably already know some poems by heart, so you’re off to a head start. Pick a new one and learn it. It’s worth it.

Finally, a note about how I made the book. I began it by taking some other EPUB book and stripping out everything I didn’t need. I edit it by hand (with Emacs). These all helped me figure things out:

If you unzip poems.epub you’ll see all the files but one. build.sh is what I use to regenerate the EPUB book:

#!/bin/sh

# Turn the poems/ directory into an EPUB file

rm -f poems.epub poems/*~
zip -Xr9D poems.epub mimetype META-INF/ poems/
Updated: 18 January 2011