Friday, July 9, 2010

Memorising Poetry

Photo by SurrealMuse






Memorise poetry? You've got to be kidding! I had to memorise long, boring poems in primary school. So why should I have to do it now?

If you were asked to recite a poem - serious or humourous, could you do that? Maybe you can remember a rude limerick or a snippet of a larger work.

Recently I started memorising poetry to build my memory "muscle". I am finding this is fun, educational as well as good mental exercise. In this article I hope to inspire you to take up this activity.

Memorising poetry and reciting it to an appreciative audience (or just yourself) is an activity that is losing popularity. Schools appear to view this activity as mere rote learning with no apparent benefit. But there are many benefits and pleasures of memorising verse.

Why Memorise Poetry?


It is fun! The most important reason is that it is fun. If you enjoy a poem, then it is satisfying to commit it to memory and make the poem part of you.  As you continue to recite the poem you will enjoy it more and entertain others.

Mental Exercise.  Memorising and reciting poetry develops the mental powers of visualisation, association and recall. Instead of just reading a poem out loud, memorising requires you to focus on the entire poem. Memorisation strengthens the powers of the mind.

The music of language. Reciting poetry helps you enjoy the rhythm and rhyme of a verse. That is why nursery rhymes are popular with children as they enjoy hearing the music of the verse. Poetry can be recited just as a musician plays an instrument. You can use your voice to say words with rhythm, pitch, sounds and melodies.

Education. Reciting poetry is an old tradition of learning - the ancient Greeks used it for awakening the mind and shaping character. In Shakespeare's time, memorising huge chunks of literature was part of schooling.  It is my understanding that American school children learn the Gettysburg address by heart, thus instilling essential American values.

Entertainment. Hearing a poem out loud is entertaining, especially when recited from memory and not read from a book. Reciting from memory demonstrates to the audience that the person knows the poem, is familiar with the words and rhyme and is able to "perform" the poem as if it was their own. Having a repertoire of memorised poetry means you can entertain an audience any time, any place.

Voice Training. Reciting poetry is good for developing your voice. You can recite the poem at any time of the day. I enjoy reciting poems when I am talking a long walk. Once you have memorised the verse, you can focus on vocal techniques such as volume, pitch, rate, use of pauses and emotion without having to worry about reading from a book.

Verse appreciation. Once a poem has been memorised it becomes part of you. During the memorisation process you observed aspects of the poem that may not have been obvious if just reading the text.

Vocabulary and Language Development.  Memorising poetry helps internalise the rhythmic, beautiful patterns of the English language which become part of your total language memory. This personal language memory bank is then used in writing and speaking.  Memorisation stocks the language bank with a whole new set of language patterns.  Memorising a variety of poems will add a rich collection of words to your vocabulary.

I discovered the phrase "the vision splendid" in Banjo Paterson's poem "Clancy of the Overflow". I had heard the phrase but did not know the source. Now that I have memorised the poem, this phrase is part of my working language.

How to memorise poetry?

This will be the subject of my next blog post. But first, let's review the poems I am memorising. 

What should I memorise?

There are many great poems, especially the poetry of my country, Australia.

A. B. "Banjo" Paterson - Clancy of the Overflow

A. B. "Banjo" Paterson - Waltzing Matilda

Rudyard Kipling - If

Rudyard Kipling - I Keep Six Honest Serving Men (from Elephant's Child) - What, When, Where, How, Why and Who


Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Kubla Khan (Xanadu)

John Magee - High Flight

Shelley - Ozymandias

What poems have you memorised or would like to memorise?

Song lyrics 

How many songs can you sing from memory. Here are two classic rock songs that you should be able to sing from memory!


Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin

Further Reading

[1]. In Defense of Memorization - Michael Knox Beran





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