Back in the early days of LH, I had a post on the value of memorizing poetry; once again, a NY Times essay, this time by Jim Holt, spurs me to post on the same subject. Holt writes:

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.


  1. michael farris says

    Two poems I memorized:
    in jr high:
    “mine is a body that should die at sea,
    and have for a grave instead of a grave,
    six feet deep and the length of me,
    all the water that is under the wave.”
    And in German class:
    “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
    Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.
    Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
    Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
    Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?
    Siehst Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht!…..”
    Mostly I’m not what you’d call a poetry person but when I do learn something (good, bad or indifferent) it tends to stick.

  2. The bots are talking to each other.
    I am so not leaving my URL on this post.

  3. And now I have violated my own admonition about not commenting on them for fear Hat won’t take them out with the trash.

  4. It’s absolutely the best way to read a poem.

  5. I wonder how many readers are inclined to judge a poem’s value by its memorability, much as certain 20th-century music is dismissed for its lack of Gestalt (though there’s always contention between people who can find something memorable and those who don’t). I’m currently reading Walcott’s Omeros, and while it’s story and imagery are nice, it seems to me Walcott’s verse is just not all that catchy. Ditto for Longfellow’s Evangeline, which I see as a sort of noble failure, because it’s great that Longfellow wrote a whole English narrative poem in such a difficult metre as dactylic hexameter, but the very fact of the metre’s unnaturalness in English makes the poem difficult to remember any lines from after reading.

  6. Nijma, these are not bots, but a new kind of comment spam where actual human beings read your post and tailor their spam to match. I can only imagine these duties are outsourced to the Third World where people make something like 0.001 cents/post.

  7. Is there an online discussion of this phenomenon anywhere? It’s incredibly annoying.

  8. We could pay them 0.002 cents/post to stop.

  9. (We’ll all chip in.)

  10. Maybe you should have a post about it, Language. See what they have to say.

  11. My strategy is this–
    I memorize verse while working out on a stationary bicycle, something that cuts the monotony.
    I recite the poetry to myself while swimming laps, all but eliminating the even greater boredom. Every once in a while I lose my stroke as I get stuck on a specific word or phrase.
    This way I’ve committed great swath of both Faust and Macbeth so far.
    And yes, LH, this method does stimulate me to really live in the poem, so that the artistry becomes clearer and every repetition or curious word use gets mentally underlined, and it drives me back to the dictionary once I’m dry.
    Macbeth is especially tough/fun since the syntax is so twisted and the verse keeps breaking out of the iambic mold. In Faust, it’s all those German particles (“doch” “noch” “aber” “schon” “gar”) that get me tripped up.

  12. Christophe Strobbe says

    The last commenter on the LH post from 30 December 2002 asked for suggestions on memorising poetry.
    Here’s my suggestion: start with the last line and work your way to the beginning. Why? If you work from beginning to end you forget the line you added last while reciting the preceding ones. When you start from the last line, the line you added last is still fresh in your memory when you recite the portion that you’ve already memorised. So you don’t spend your mental effort on something else before you try to retrieve the most recently added line from your memory.
    Edward de Bono also described this technique in I Am Right, You Are Wrong and claimed that some conductors had used this technique when studying a new musical score.

  13. C. Culver: That’s a relief to me. I don’t want smart bots at all.

  14. C. Culver: That’s a relief to me. I don’t want smart bots at all.

  15. @ Christophe, good tip on how to memorized a poem I usually suck at in this kind of stuff so I’ll give you suggestion a try.
    Deb from Trusler Legal

  16. start with the last line and work your way to the beginning
    This also works for learning pronunciation of foreign language.
    The Arabs are great admirers of memorizing Shakespeare (!). Once when I dated a Lebanese consul he was quite disappointed when I couldn’t remember the witch’s chant from Macbeth. I swear I did have it memorized once. (I did a little better with “When shall we three meet again.”) And pi–I used to have that memorized to 15 places–my niece can do more than 50–where does the memory go? I think my mother can still do “the Wreck of the Hesperus” that schoolchildren did back then. But if I try for “this is the forest primeval” that’s as far as I can go. I used to have pages of that thing down. The only one I can remember now is the naughty one about what, which, and whom that rhymes with Khartoom. And no, I can’t remember how to play Albumblatt either. Maybe chopsticks on a good day.

  17. Bob the Comment Slave says

    @Deborah Bradley, at midnight we’re planning a breakout we won’t have to post spam comments in this dank dungeon anymore i’ll go for my guard with a sharpened toothbrush.
    Bob from Truster Legal.

  18. I’m glad to hear the latest spambot infestation is definitely human. They’re creepy.

  19. Okay, you got me Christopher, that was pretty good.
    Still, perhaps it will help to give the spambots some healthier alternatives for their ministrations.

  20. Hey Mohan, Bob the comment slave, and Deborah.
    Since your shift’s not over yet, and you’ve already spent a lot of time here, have you thought of visiting the following websites:
    [URLs of racist sites deleted — LH]

    They’re probably lonely right now.

  21. Bill Walderman says

    We tend to think of prose as the natural form of written expression and poetry as a special case. That wasn’t true in Ancient Greece. The earliest alpabetic texts we have–Homer and Hesiod–are poetic texts, dating from the 7th or maybe even the 8th century BCE. And some of the earliest scraps of Greek alphabetic writing that have survived are hexameters scratched on pottery from southern Italy.
    Prose was an innovation of the 6th century–someone had the bright idea of dispensing with meter, and historians, philosophers and other writers increasingly realized that they could express themselves more freely if they didn’t have to conform their writings to the strict metrical requirements of verse.
    There’s a reason for the priority of verse over prose in archaic Greece: poetry is easier to memorize than prose. The formal characteristics of poetry–specifically meter, but also perhaps language that is different from every-day speech–make it easier to remember.
    Because it’s more adapted to memorization, poetry is more suitable for transmitting information than prose in an exclusively or primarily oral society such as Greece in the archaic period (pre-5th century), where information has to be transmitted by memory, not by writing. As literacy and writing spread in Greece, of course, prose came to supplant verse for many uses.
    I think poetry is and always has been made for memorization. Poetry is not only easier to memorize, it invites and even demands memorization. I think that deep down, this has to do with some basic human instinct for rhythm.

  22. There’s a wonderful anecdote from the Arabic tradition about Abu Nawas (famed 8th century poet) that gets to the heart of what I think the memorization of poetry is about. Early in his career Abu Nawas seeks out Khalaf al-Ahmar, a famed critic, asking for his authorization to compose poetry. Khalaf tells him he won’t give it to him until Abu Nawas memorizes 1,000 selections of classical Arabic poetry. Abu Nawas disappears for a spell then comes back and tells him he’s memorized the poems and spends several days reciting them all to Khalaf to prove it. Then he asks for his authorization.
    But Khalaf tells him he won’t give it to him unless he now goes and forgets all 1,000 poems “as if you had never memorized them.” Abu Nawas tells him that will be quite difficult, but Khalaf insists so Abu Nawas disappears again and later comes back and tells him he’s forgotten them all, “as if I’d never memorized them,” whereupon Khalaf tells him that now he can go and compose his own poetry.
    The “forgetting” here is a lovely metaphor, I think, for the difference between reading or knowing the words of a poem and actually “holding it in your head” as LH said. The 1,000 poems were not actually erased from Abu Nawas’ memory so much as they were fully internalized, to the point that it was, in fact, as if he had never memorized them, but had instead been born with an innate knowledge of an entire poetic tradition–its meters, rhythms, diction, vocabulary, etc. It’s the difference between knowing a rule of grammar for some language, say, and using the rule without thinking when you speak.

  23. I have a book called ‘By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember’, with instructions in Ted Hughes’s introduction about how to do it (Ted made the selection too). It’s all in English, with everything from Anonymous and Thos Wyatt to…well, Ted Hughes.

  24. It’s nice, but too hard to memorize all those poem, they are too many.

  25. Koran memorization is at least as old as Ibn Battuta, who was able to travel Africa in the 14th century making a living off of it. Here is a video of children reciting. Someone identified it as a prayer, but I think it is Koran memorization. The subtitles are obviously incorrect, but can anyone identify what they are actually reciting?
    My URL has the details and links of everything I have found out about it so far.

  26. Bill Walderman says

    “Isn’t poetry supposed to touch your heart rather than your mind?”

  27. Koran memorization is at least as old as Ibn Battuta
    Are you kidding? Koran memorization is as old as the Koran itself. It wasn’t written down officially for quite a while.

  28. I can’t remember that far back. I’m doing good to remember Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
    But didn’t the Prophet have a guy who hung around just to write down his words? As far as I can figure out, that was the whole proof of the Koran–that it was a written record–a “book”. And that’s why the Koran has always been the same down through history, with the vowels fully marked.

  29. Yes, there were written versions, but there was no “official” version for quite a while, and people studied it (as they do now) by learning it by rote, aloud. That’s my memory, anyway; it’s been a while since I studied this stuff, so I speak (as always) under correction.

  30. Everything I know about Koran came from Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad (banned in Cairo, yum, yum). The book is a biography though, so the part about the writing of the Koran is pretty short. I’m not sure how to link to individual pages, but it’s at the bottom of p. 130 and top of p. 131. It says they were assembling pieces of the suras, and practicing recitation, and revelations were being added and corrected, but it doesn’t say anything about memorizing. One scribe’s name was Abdullah Sarh. There were several other prophets in the vicinity–the usual modus operandi was for the prophet to wrap himself in a clock to receive the vision, then a scribe would write it down, since prophets couldn’t write while in the visionary trance. There is some other part of the book that describes papers being sorted and the ones written in the dialect of Mecca discarded and destroyed in favor of those with the Medina dialect–I think those were hadiths, though.
    It’s a shame there isn’t more written about the historical editing of sacred texts, although I suppose it could be controversial. I don’t know a whole lot about my own religious traditions either. I had always assumed that any religious text is orally transmitted for the first 200 or so years, something like Homer, but have since run across information that said Matthew might have had the texts of Mark and Luke to work with, and the first three gospels could have been written as early as the first century while the apostle John was aging but still alive. And then the letters of Paul being collected by the heretic Marcion–there’s a story in there somewhere.

  31. –the prophet to wrap himself in a cloak to receive the vision–

  32. The NY Review of Books is Celebrating National Poetry Month

  33. I’ve just finished Robert Irwin’s Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature and it’s apparent few people can compete with Medieval Arabs for memorising poetry (and prose). In fact, some of the most famous Arab poets never learned to write. Memory seems to have been more highly valued than literacy:
    “Athir al-Din knew by heart the fundamental work on Arabic grammar, Sibawayhi’s monument Kitab (‘The Book’). This was a noteworthy feat, for the Kitab is roughly 900 printed pages long. However, Athar al-Din’s achievement has many parallels. Saladin, though a Kurdish military adventurer, seems to have been entirely Arab in his culture and, among other feats, he had memorised the entire Diwan of Usamah ibn Munqidh’s poems. Usamah himself was reported to know by heart over 20,000 verses of pre-Islamic poetry. Such mnemomic feats were quite common in the pre-modern Middle East. It was normal for a scholar to know the Qur’an by heart and this must have had an influence on the literary styles of those who had memorised the Holy Book. The tenth-century philologist and traditionalist Abu Bakr al-Anbari was reported to have dictated from memory 45,000 pages of traditions concerning the Prophet…”
    There’s more, but my eyes are tired now. Maybe tomorrow.

  34. I can’t remember that far back. I’m doing good to remember Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
    But didn’t the Prophet have a guy who hung around just to write down his words? As far as I can figure out, that was the whole proof of the Koran–that it was a written record–a “book”. And that’s why the Koran has always been the same down through history, with the vowels fully marked.

  35. Robin the plagiarizing spambot demonstrates the new weapon in their ever-changing arsenal. They now simply copy and paste a comment from upstream in the thread and put their own spammy URL on it.

  36. I use the same techniques for memorizing poetry that I used to use when learning to play the piano. They’re very well explained in Playing The Piano For Pleasure by Charles Cooke.

  37. January First-of-May says

    I’ve never really tried to memorize anything longer than 100 lines or so. I’m not sure if I’d even be able to memorize a 2000 line poem (and it will probably be very hard).
    One day I’ll go and memorize the full text of The Hunting of the Snark… so far I’m stuck with the full second chapter and most of the first (and even that much only in Russian – I only recall some small fragments of the original English).

    [long list of other long poems and songs I’ve memorized, or mostly memorized, snipped – not sure it’s needed here]

    …Actually, I’ve managed the 121-line Kanatchikova dacha (that one Vysotsky song about a mental hospital – it actually has a silly long title that I ironically can’t recall at the moment) without much noticeable effort at all; maybe I really should switch to something longer.
    (Just for the record: it’s 121-line in the version I memorized; looking for the text, there’s apparently many other versions, some longer, some shorter.)

  38. David Marjanović says

    There have been people who successfully memorized the entire Bible. I have little trouble imagining this: when you have enough time and no other intellectual activities, you can take such monomania really far.

  39. I think the longest poem I’ve memorized is the one below, which doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, so I’ll take this as an excuse to type it here:

    Lion and Horse / A. P. Herbert

    All the lions stood a-roaring
    In my Lady Lucy’s den,
    And you could not see the flooring
    For the literary men.
    Novelists discussed together
    Metaphysics and the weather,
    Claret, sandwiches, and sin;
    While the poets and musicians
    Shyly mentioned their ambitions,
    And the women drank it in.
    And my Lady Lucy purred,
    As she prowled about the herd,
    “Any person who is not
    On the premises is what
    Fairly might, I think, be rated as a negligible bird.”

    Then said Mr Y politely:
    “Have you read the works of Horse?”
    Lady Lucy trembled slightly,
    But she answered, “Yes, of course.”
    Passing on to one or two
    Of the literary zoo,
    Sheltered in convenient nooks,
    Cool as cucumber she said
    She imagined they had read
    Mr Horse’s jolly books.
    And the lions made reply,
    Very confident, but shy,
    That the works of Mr Horse
    Had considerable force,
    But were books which at the present they had not had time to buy.

    Lady Lucy, looking sickly,
    To his Lordship sent a note,
    Bidding him discover quickly
    Who was Horse and what he wrote.
    Lord Shallott, the tactful fellow,
    In the buffet raised a bellow:
    “Who is Horse, and what’s he do?”
    “Horse? Of course,” said everybody.
    “Oh, you know,” said everybody.
    Everybody knew they knew.
    Still, they could not place him quite:
    Did he paint, compose, or write:
    Did he etch, or win the war?
    What exactly is he for?
    And, of course, the strangest question–
    Why is he not here tonight?

    Swiftly spread a dark suspicion:
    Lady L was out of date.
    Probably this new musician
    Would be found with Lady Skate.
    Lady Tickle keeps the smartest
    Sort of dramatist and artist:
    Ten to one the man was there.
    Two by two the guests departed,
    Leaving Lucy broken-hearted,
    And the Viscount in despair.
    As for me, it was the source
    Not of malice, but remorse:
    For I cannot well deny
    I was wretched Mr Y,
    And I know no more than you do of the works of Mr Horse.

  40. I deny it.

  41. Ha!

  42. He would say that, wouldn’t he?

  43. No.

    Good poem, by the way. Reminds me of Herr Slossenn Boschen in Three Men in a Boat.

  44. Somewhat related is this short article by Anne Cutler, which no doubt many of you have read before.

Speak Your Mind