Thursday, October 04, 2012

How I Memorise a Poem

This post is not about the why. The podcast "Inscribe the poem on yourself" and the later one "Trying to Impress Literary Types" describes some of the benefits of memorising poetry. There are times in your life when words fail you and then it is handy to have quick access to someone else's. 'A good solid poem in your cortex can be almost like ballast in a ship’s hold. If turbulent mental activity surges, speaking a poem to oneself can be a way to even out the waves.'

Poetry in a set form is much easier to memorise than free verse. The epic poems of The Táin and the lliad used strict metrics to aid memorisation. This is because they came from a time where they were not written down but memorised and so any technique that made them easier to recall was vital.

When you know how many words of syllables should be left in the line so many blanks are already filled inserting the rest is easier. Christopher Hitchens describes this with

"A preferred form was the limerick, of which I still have a hundred or so hard-wired into my cortex in case of need (or opportunity). Not all these need be filthy—I have a special reserve of clean ones, some without even a double entendre—but all of them do need to follow a certain simple but exacting scheme. It depresses me beyond measure that most people I meet cannot even recite, much less compose, this gem-like form. Nor can any student in any of my English classes produce a single sonnet of Shakespeare: not even to get themselves laid (the original purpose of the project)."

This is the first thing I do when trying to learn a poem

1. Get the text of the poem. Say Shakespeare's Sonnet 12 (which is on the Leaving cert)


When I do count the clock that tells the time,

And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;

When I behold the violet past prime,

And sable curls all silver'd o'er with white;

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves

Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,

And summer's green all girded up in sheaves

Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,

Then of thy beauty do I question make,

That thou among the wastes of time must go,

Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake

And die as fast as they see others grow;

And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence

Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

2. Find the rhythm and any rules the poem follows. Free verse can sometimes lack these but most poems clip along at a particular pace. Shakespeare's Sonnet XII is in an iambic beat with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The rhythm can be written as:

da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM

When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME

3. See if there is an audio of the poem being read. Youtube is a good place to look but a google search for " audio" will usually turn up something. Here is Sonnet 12. I then rip the audio file from youtube and stick it on my phone.

4. If there are any words I do not understand I look them up now.

5. Next I follow the memorisation technique described here

Read a line of the poem and say it back to myself. Ideally do this outloud.

The more senses involved in a memorisation the better. Neurons that fire together wire together and the more bits of your brain you can get in on the task the better. Imagine any easily visualised objects mentioned in the poem

Try feel any emotions the line conveys.

Listen to the audio of this line.

6. Now do this again for the next line and so on.

7. Now go back through the poem but two lines at a time.

8. Do this again for 3,4 and 5 lines at a time.

9. Listen again to the full poem and then repeat it completely.

10. Repeat it again to myself and reread what I have learned before I go to sleep.

11. Repeat the poem and read it again it the next day, a week and a month later. This review advise is fairly common but I cant find research that shows this gap is optimal.

There are other techniques to memorize poems. Competitive memorizers tend to use the method of loci described in my post on memorising cards. In this a poem becomes a walk and each line is a particular location where you imagine something happening. There is a good explanation of how this technique works for poems here

In my opinion it is worth practicing learning poems by rote initially as it will at least improve your ability to memorise small chunks of text which will help even loci based methods. A friend and I are working on a way to make this simpler system available easily to anyone with a phone.

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