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How To Memorize a Poem

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Reciting Verse
Kurt Hutton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Has memory has become a vestigial organ like the appendix? The battle over writ/spoke, poem working on page or stage, rages. Let’s breathe hot oxygen on the conflagration with this, Step-by-Step-by-Heart.
Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: An hour, a day, a lifetime

Here's How:

  1. You memorize because you have to. 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...

  2. Boom! You have to make this poem your own. You Have to Memorize It.

  3. Read the poem over, slowly, to yourself and aloud.

  4. Try to understand the mystery of why it works for you using the same words that pass by unremarkably every day.

  5. Try to understand the poem by understanding the poem inside the poem, to understand the mystery by letting the mystery retain its mystery.

  6. Read and say the poem over, slowly, aloud.

  7. Understand the poem by knowing every word’s meaning: etymological investigation.

  8. Don’t shirk the architecture: the form, the look of the poem on the page, understand?

  9. Dive off the line breaks themselves, into the abyss, cutting the shape of the page around the poem. The poem contains its opposite.

  10. Read and say the poem over, slowly, aloud. Feel its shape in your lungs, your heart, your throat.

  11. 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.”

  12. 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.

  13. Then it’s on to three. Always repeat the first line on down, till the whole poem sings.

  14. 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.

Tips:

  1. Memorizing balances by heart and by rote. Think about this. Step-by-step you learn’t by heart.
  2. As the Duchess says in Alice in Wonderland, “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

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