Memory Forum

Lists of Poems to Memorize

by Josh Cohen on March 18, 2011

For anyone practicing poetry memorization, I found a site with some good poems to memorize. Another list is here.

This article on memorizing poetry is also interesting.

“Memory is a muscle, not a quart jar.”

I’ve been reading poems and learning the structure of poetry, but I haven’t memorized anything, except through brute force while driving around. I just don’t have enough loci yet, since I’m going to need one locus for every line of poetry. I’m working on building more journeys, but it’s going to take a while…

Shakespeare

Shakespeare

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    { 17 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Cole March 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Great resources! I wish I’d found this website before spending months with (mainly) rote techniques on some of these poems.

    One thing that helped me tremendously with both Poe and Service was finding readings of them on youtube. While my loci / mnemonic techniques were quite primitive, the youtube videos provided the following resources:
    1) the words
    2) audio queues: some of the readers have terrific voices that can really stick with you
    3) visual queues: some of the readings videos – ie The Raven – are done on stages of various complexity, while I was unaware of the loci technique when I memorized these poems, I definitely relied on the connection my mind made between verses and locations.
    4) walks: again, was unaware of loci technique but had plenty of success (esp with shorter poems) just reciting them to myself while walking around my block in Palermo Bs As (in the case of the road not taken).

    Here is a link to a wonderful reading of Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee: http://goo.gl/QkNAK

    The Robert Frost poems are really great beginning points – first stopping by woods on a snowy evening and then the road not taken.

    2 nelson dellis March 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    awesome links!

    3 Josh March 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I started reading Robert Service when I was winter camping up in Alberta. Good stuff…

    Grim land, dim land, oh, how the vastness calls!
    Far land, star land, oh, how the stillness falls!
    For you never can tell if it’s heaven or hell,
    And I’m taking the trail on trust;
    But I haven’t a doubt
    That my soul will leap out
          On its Wan-der-lust.

    From my experiments with brute force memorization of poetry, I think it’s going to be much easier with a journey. I get stuck at certain points and I usually just need a trigger word to remember the next line…

    4 Cole March 18, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Love Service.

    5 Dan March 19, 2011 at 7:45 am

    IMO here’s a better list from Poems to Memorize: http://www.alysion.org/memorablepoems.htm.

    The list includes one my (& Churchill and Nelson Mandela) favorites, Invictus:

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    6 Cole March 19, 2011 at 9:40 am

    That’s a great list also. The devil’s advocate in me wants to criticize all of the 3 lists for being so Americentric and focusing so much on Romanticism, to the fault of exclusion. But the lists are wonderful starting points, all of them include some great works. I do like the idea of breaking them up into categories based on length/ difficulty / style, as per the first two, and I look forward to helping compile a list like that for our wiki here.

    7 Dan March 19, 2011 at 11:00 am

    My fear in memorizing poetry would be my inability to refrain from reciting it to others. I know if someone were to recite it in front of me I would immediately view them as insufferable and pretentious and the whole thing obnoxious. I think I would view it as less tolerable than someone rattling off the names of the starting players from the World Series in 1950, 1951,1952,…

    8 Josh March 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    @Cole
    Thanks for starting the wiki page! Looks good…

    @Dan
    I’m sure that things like storytelling and reciting poetry were common pastimes before television and computers. Today, I don’t think anyone many people would understand — unless you posted them to YouTube, which probably has a lot of poetry aficionados as users.

    9 Cole March 19, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    For sure, Josh. Looking forward to spending some more time with that after I finish tonight’s last straggler in my present round of exams. I’m inexperienced at building wiki’s so hopefully others will lend a hand also.

    But on that note, I think it is crucial for the poetry wiki to start out with a very small selection on which to focus, later we can expand the number of wikis relating to poetry and thus also expand the number of poems, but let’s not get too crazy too fast! A solid dozen-ish favorites seems like a good preliminary cap. Otherwise the “paradox of choice” may seem overwhelming.

    10 Cole March 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    @Dan – the problematic saving grace about regurgitating poetry in inappropriate (read: pretentious) settings is that poetry tends to take a lot longer to recite properly than it does when you (or at least I) practice it in a rapid-fire mental staccato. I only ever recited the raven to non-intimates on 1 occasion, and those people were still close friends. It took a long time – must have been close to 10 minutes? The result could maybe best be described as a polite blend of interest and annoyance. It about cured me of attempting any repeats. I now view memorized poetry mainly as “furniture for the mind” – a phrase I think Wendell Berry may have coined?

    From that perspective, I suppose the only difference between poetry and baseball statistics lies in personal interests and outcomes. Personally, I feel like my mind is already amply full of contemporary statistics and data in the form of CMS systems, mobile device platforms, memory and cpu numbers, even telephone numbers and websites and blah blah blah, not to mention historical data from my studies – to the point that I would rather use my free time for something I personally find more relaxing and restoring. Hopefully that doesn’t read as a criticism, it’s just what works for me.

    11 Bob March 21, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Wow, Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee is turning into a fun challenge. Overlapping references to dogs, sleds and stars.
    60 lines is a good mental exercise, especially with a highly structured meter.

    12 Josh March 22, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    @Cole
    I think everybody will be memorizing different poems in different order, and it will be hard to limit what which poems people post in the wiki. (There are almost 2,000 visitors per week at the moment and traffic is increasing rapidly.)

    One way to organize it might be to split the list of poems into “packets” of maybe 10 poems each. A person could choose a group of poems to work through without being too overwhelmed or limited either…

    I’m not sure if this is the best way to organize it, but it’s a quick brainstorm of one way to do it:

    Beginner
    Sonnets 1 (10 poems)
    Sonnets 2 (10 poems)
    Tales 1 (10 poems)
    Emily Dickenson 1 (10 poems)
    etc.

    Intermediate
    Sonnets 3 (10 poems)
    Tales 2 (10 poems)
    etc.

    Advanced
    etc.

    I think it would be okay even if the lists overlap a little bit.

    Any thoughts?

    13 Cole March 24, 2011 at 11:35 am

    @Josh – You’re absolutely right. Making smaller “targets” will allow for more participation while keeping it from getting too crazy. Good thinking.

    14 Chelsea July 6, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    good

    15 Juaquin Adams April 7, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with the comments re: “knowing your audience”. I memorized Hamlet’s soliloquy (“To Be, or Not To Be”, etc.), and I have had diametrically opposed responses. Once, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned to the table that I knew the entire thing, and I was “dared” to recite it. I did, and the applause and cheers were raucous. Of course, that got to my head, and a couple weeks later at another restaurant, the topic of memorization came up. I foolishly boasted that I knew the entire soliloquy. Then I stood up and did my thing, only to be pelted with breadsticks, napkins, and sugar packets (even from people across the room!), particularly when I got to such words as “who would fardels bear to grunt and sweat under a weary life”. Sometimes we have to simply keep our memorization skills to ourselves.

    16 Curtis Stotlar April 15, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    I specialize in teaching musical memorization to other pianists. Poetry isn’t that far away. Memorization is a skill and as a skill it needs to be practiced. It’s helpful to start with smaller things at the beginning, then increase in size. The more sense things mean and how they relate to each other as they follow a thought is invaluable. In other words, the better we know what’s going on and why it’s happening, the easier the task.

    17 Micah April 16, 2013 at 10:27 am

    I must say, I really appreciate your blog, Josh, as I’ve been working on my own memory here lately. Being able to instantly recall more of my favorite reading really interests me. One web tool I’ve been working on recently is http://memorytyper.com/, which ia free website folks can use to practice poetry or any other text they’re working on memorizing.

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