Psst.. the secret to memorising poetry

You too can memorise poetry! Impress your friends with recitations! Quell the voices in your head! As you can see, I’m pretty excited about this. I feel like some great secret has been revealed, and I’m going to give up the game and tell everyone.

I was able to capture a poem I’ve been trying to memorise for years. Directive by Robert Frost. Deborah Digges introduced this poem in a poetry class I took over 20 years ago. That means for over two decades fragments of this poem would come bobbing up to the surface of my thoughts. Especially on walks. “Back in a time made simple by the loss of detail… burned, dissolved and broken off….” And then it would disintegrate, and I couldn’t go any further with it. When I was visiting The Glen in Sligo, I remember thinking, “great monolithic knees,” and I wasn’t able to get the rest of the poem. The poem itself is about getting lost and at the end there’s a lovely little treasure.

It was tempting. I wanted to have Directive, but I couldn’t crack it. It’s blank verse, 10 syllables per line, over 60 lines. And no rhymes! I started in earnest four years ago, and I held together certain images or moments from the poem, but found the jumps hard. I stumbled over certain lines that were awkward. How do people memorise entire plays and monologues. It’s been a mystery.

Until I read Lynda Barry’s work, and she shared the secret: Set it to music in your head. In this video, she explains why you should memorize poetry and demonstrates putting Emily Dickinson’s poems to songs.

Turns out I didn’t need to do attach a real tune with Directive, but tapping into the musical rhythm helped.

“Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.”

I had struggled with that last line there, now that I have tapped into it, it really does roll lumpily along on wooden wheels and ruts. It turns out the wagons and ruts were mentioned earlier in the poem, and it’s all there in my ear too.

As soon as I got Directive, something clicked into place. Like the end of the poem, it was “whole again beyond confusion.” Now, it’s stored somewhere else in my brain, more like directions. I don’t struggle to recall it, it’s just there, whole, and perfect. I recite it like a prayer or a chant.

Now I’m starting on other poems that lie around in fragments in my mind. I recently finished memorising “As I walked out one evening” by W. H. Auden. It feels so good to be able to call this one up. How many times have I stood at a sink and thought…

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

I won’t be memorising any Whitman or A. R. Ammons, but I feel like I can fill in the blanks, connect these fragments, and follow a poem further now.

I started memorising poems in high school. I would pick sonnets and poems that rhymed. They were easier. My great-grandmother, Ina, was famous in the family for having a storehouse of poems she would recite. Back when recitations were a thing! She could recite “The Deacon’s Masterpiece; or the Wonderful ‘One-Hoss Shay’ ” by Oliver Wendell Holmes – well into her elder years without stumbling over a syllable. That one is on my list, and I think finally I could tackle it. If I can get the accent right!

Now that recitations aren’t a thing, it’s not really about having an audience. It’s about having the poem in your mind. Each time it comes to you, it might have different meanings, or even reveal something about a moment to you. Lynda Barry explains in the video above, a poem is “something you follow and stay behind…” She says you can’t understand poetry by reading it, you have to memorise it. “When it’s in your head, it can come to you. And you can see how the back of the mind uses it.”

1 thought on “Psst.. the secret to memorising poetry”

  1. A few years ago, I got a bee in my bonnet about learning a few simple popular poems – these are the ones I learnt (by first line because that is usually my favourite part of the poem)

    1 – I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree
    2 – When you are old and grey and full of sleep
    3 – Every old man I see reminds me of my father (some old men I see – mine died in 2015)
    4 – When fishes flew and forests walked (love donkeys – had one growing up and I adopted one years ago (on paper!))

    All forgotten now but phrases from them keep popping into my head. Such a pleasure.

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