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The Joy and Benefits of Memorizing Poetry

21 November 2023

Barbara read Memorize That Poem! by Molly Worthen and Got Poetry by Jim Holt and decided to return to her practice of memorizing poetry.

Tags: barbara read, mindfulness, poetry

As an English Major at the University of Richmond and in my Masters program, poetry mystified and irritated me. It felt like something I was supposed to appreciate and a party I wasn’t invited to. In those days I would have rolled my eyes and ignored Worthen and Holt’s recommendation to memorize poetry so you can have beautiful words floating in your head, particularly during stressful times and to exercise your brain just as you exercise your muscles in the gym. However, later in life I met the poet, David Whyte, and he helped me to not just appreciate but to truly love poetry.

The first lines of one of my favorite poems Lost by David Wagoner helped me settle down many times in the last three years as I navigated the isolation of COVID-19 and being a caregiver to my husband. I would recite these lines over and over again as I struggled to find some kind of peace each day.

Stand still.  The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost.  Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.

Molly Worthen in Memorize That Poem! wrote, “Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brain, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline—to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.”

I resonated with Worthen’s modern-day example of why knowing a poem is helpful. “After a day when my latest writing project felt pointless, I was running a fever and found myself kneeling on the kitchen floor at 9 p.m., scraping at ossified bits of my toddler’s morning oatmeal with the edge of a spoon. I was ready to 'trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.' Shakespeare just gets me."

Jim Holt in Got Poetry gives advice about how to memorize. First, he tells some stories about those who can do it easily. “A few lucky types seem to memorize great swaths of poetry without even trying. George Orwell said that when a verse passage “has really rung the bell” — as the early T. S. Eliot invariably did for him — he could remember 20 or 30 lines after a single reading.”

Then for us lesser beings, he says memorizing is possible, easy, and fun if you just learn two lines a day.

When I retired from fulltime work in 2012, I memorized five poems just to prove I could—Wild Geese and The Journey by Mary Oliver, The Swan by Rilke, Lost by David Wagoner, and What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte. I then gave a talk at my church where I recited all five of them.

I was trying to copy my hero and literary crush, David Whyte. He has memorized 300 poems and says you need to practice them about once a month to keep them fresh. I remember the peace I got from those poems, how proud I was of myself for being able to recite them anytime I wanted to, and a certain mental clarity I felt as a result of memorizing.

I lost some of the lines in those poems over the course of the pandemic, but now I’m going to brush them off and learn another one by Whyte—Coleman’s Bed. What poem could you memorize? If you’re not even sure what poet you’d like to try reading, you might enjoy some of our favorites at Allison Partners.


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