A few years ago, I started learning poetry by heart on a daily basis. I’ve now memorized about a hundred poems, some of them quite long — more than 2,000 lines in all, not including limericks and Bob Dylan lyrics….
The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.
That’s my case for learning poetry by heart. It’s all about pleasure. And it’s a cheap pleasure. Between the covers of any decent anthology you have an entire sea to swim in…
I second all of that; as I said here, I couldn’t really get a handle on Mandelstam’s “The Horseshoe Finder” until I’d memorized it, and it really is a deep pleasure to be able to hold a poem in your head and repeat it whenever you want.