By Heart

I’m an increasingly big fan of memorizing poems, and have decided to do something I’d thought about before but never implemented: memorize one poem a week this year. (And now that I’ve said so publicly, well I’ll have to do it won’t I. Oh well, why not? This week it was “Musee des Beaux Arts” by Auden.)

I think knowing poems by heart is wonderful as a regular person (among other things, it means if you’re stuck somewhere totally boring you can recite a great poem in your head, or if you come to a split in a ski trail you can go all Robert Frost and impress your friends, and you just never know when you might wind up stranded on a freaky tropical isle, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and will need something memorized with which to entertain yourself between adventures, or console yourself during zombie terrors etcetera. Television has made me sure of that possibility.) And it’s probably essential as a writer. (How wonderful to not only have great poems even faster than “at hand” but also to internalize their rhythms and movements and mystery.)

There are lots of methods out there for memorizing poems — here’s mine. Patience is the hardest bit for me. I constantly have to remind myself do NOT move ahead to another line until I have the one I’m on down pat. Forward progress is of course the nicest thing to be doing, but if I move ahead while still wobbly, I’ll almost always be wobbly in that spot later.

1. I write the poem out longhand. Then type it out. People said it to me and I’ll say it to you — it’s amazing what you notice when forced to look at something word by word. It’s really the best way to get to start to get to know a poem.

2. I keep a printed copy in my pocket and pull it out whenever I have a moment. I like memorizing poems on walks (the only trick there being making sure you stop to read — blindly running into things is only funny for the people watching you). And if it’s in your pocket it’s handy for making use of slow grocery lines, etc. (though thumbing through People is a totally legit way to make use of slow grocery lines too).

3. I say the first line over and over and over and over. In my head, if I’m out and about. I say just one line until I have it in its entirety and can say it easily without hesitation several times in a row. Looking away from and back at the paper when I need to. (Actually I suppose the more accurate very first step is reading a poem in its entirety over and over, but generally the poems I want to memorize are ones I love and have therefore done so already.)

4. Then I say the next line over and over and over. And then, the first and second together. For each transition  — line to line or stanza to stanza — I look for a small mnemonic, usually in the sounds though meaning works too, that hooks the two together. For instance in “Musée Des Beaux Arts” the link between the line “They never forgot” and the next line “That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course” is never –> even. In “Elegy with a Bridle in its Hand” by Larry Levis, which I memorized at the height of my Larry Levis discovery mania last year, the word pairing, this time for sense, of again –> time nailed down the transition between the 4th and 5th stanzas — “& found gradually the way out again. // In the slowness of time.” Later in that same poem there’s a transition between “letting them pause when they wanted to” and “At dawn in winter sometimes” — I used the prepositions as the mnemonic there, the ending to –> starting at.

5. I keep building that way, saying the next line over and over, then adding it to the previous lines. Either the whole thing through every time, or by stanzas, depending on the poem’s length.

6. Once I have it, I say it out loud, first to myself, and then to someone else. Can’t know for sure if you’ve really memorized it if you don’t do it for an audience. Have them check the printout as you go, if they’re willing, to make sure you’re not making any mistakes. But before then, it’s fun to practice it aloud to yourself in different ways, try out the best inflections.

In hindsight, I’m extremely disappointed that in my entire educational career I was only asked to memorize a poem twice. One, for high school English class, was the first 18 lines of the prologue of the Canterbury Tales, in the original, a not uncommon assignment. But as evidenced at a gathering last weekend when memorization came up, I am not the only one of my friends who can still recite pretty much all of it by heart despite not having looked at the thing since.

And that’s it! If you have any favorite memorized poems or memorization tips, leave a reply below.

 

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