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Step-by-Step By Heart

How to memorize a poem

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Committed To Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize, ed. John Hollander & Eavan Boland
Penguin USA

1. You memorize because you have to. The big rebellion against memorization missed the point that “have to” is not external. Teacher says you have to memorize the dates of ancient battles, you throw over tyranny... No! Poem you are reading makes you stop dead, you hear the voice of the poet meld with your thought-process, the poem was written especially for you... Boom! You have to make this poem your own. YOU HAVE TO MEMORIZE IT. (Of course if you wrote it yourself it’s another story, er, poem.)

2. Read the poem over, slowly, to yourself and aloud. Try to understand the mystery of why it works for you using the same words that pass by unremarkably every day. Try to understand the poem by understanding the poem inside the poem, to understand the mystery by letting the mystery retain its mystery. Understand the poem by knowing every word’s meaning: etymological investigation. And don’t shirk the architecture: the form, the look of the poem, understand? Finally, dive off the line breaks themselves, into the abyss, cutting the shape of the page around the poem. The poem contains its opposite.

As the Duchess says in Alice in Wonderland, “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”*

3. Memorizing balances by heart and by rote. With an index card, cover everything but the first line of the poem. Read it. Look away, see the line in air, and say it. Look back. Repeat until you’ve “got it.” Uncover the second line. Learn it as you did the first line, but also add second line to first, until you’ve got the two. Then it’s on to three. Always repeat the first line on down, till the whole poem sings.

4. With the poem now internalized, you are freed to perform it. This is to find the voice(s) of the poem, to find yourself there, and the poet, and to relate to the audience. To play with the sense of character if you wish; to hold the page and come off it if you wish; to run and yodel, stand still, hit the midi switch, zap the TV, cue the buffalo, let the band unstrap their instruments from jade and tortoise cases. Wear roller skates, go naked. And, and especially, none of the above (see Duchess, above). Multivoice.

*Much obliged to John Hollander for these allusions found in the introduction to his book Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize (reprint edition, Riverhead Books, 1997).
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