Why (and How) You Should Memorize Poetry

When I was in the seventh grade, at the unripe age of twelve, I had an English teacher by the name of Mr. Bodnar. 

He was a quiet, unassuming fellow of middle age and small stature, of receding hairline and protuberant eyes, in whose genial presence all the children of Bunker Hill Middle School felt perfectly at ease. Diffident among parents, inconspicuous among colleagues, Mr. Bodnar appeared to exhibit all the subtler qualities of a man of refinement and class. He appeared to me, in the blurry haze of my prepubescent discernment, the very image of an intellectual. He was eloquent, clever, gentlemanly, polished—by all evidence an accomplished “man of letters”. He was, in so many words, the very image of an adult after whose likeness I, just now beginning to develop a taste for serious literature and an interest in great books, enthusiastically strove to model myself. 

By nature soft-spoken, Mr. Bodnar’s voice would rise to an involuntarily giddy pitch, almost to a thrill of excitement, whenever we entered into a discussion about poetry. On this most sublime of topics, on this most exalted of themes, the good Mr. Bodnar could talk endlessly. Indeed, I can recall quite vividly his attempt to do so, conceding the daily effort only when the class bell rang out. Standing before a captive audience of awkward pre-teens (by whom he was, overall, very warmly regarded), Mr. Bodnar would speak of the Romantics, the Beatniks, the transcendentalists, the Greeks, and (my favorite) the Latins. Until the bell’s ring signaled the conclusion of his class, he indulged his ability to talk at length about words, stanzas, meters, and couplets.

Sonnets, limericks, rhymed and free verse–these were the things about which he was most passionate. And he tried, by and large successfully, to communicate that passion to us. These were the things for which, by way of some invisible conveyance of energy from the teacher’s podium to the student’s desk, from the dusty chalkboard to the doodle-adorned notebooks in our grasp, he hoped that we too would cultivate a liking. In my own heart and among my circle of friends, this certainly was the case.

To that end, he tried very hard to instill in us an appreciation, if not a genuine and everlasting fondness, for poetry. Thus, it was customary for him to assign the class a poetic work over which it was expected to display, in but a few weeks’ time, complete mastery. That’s right: we were tasked with memorizing poems start to finish, line by line, word-perfect and without a hitch. Evidence of this mastery and our retentive powers would present itself in the form of a graded recitation, a crisp reading of the poem before the judgment of both teacher and peer.

It was a daunting, yet deeply enriching assignment through which every last one of us struggled. But the struggle, albeit difficult, was collectively borne, and felt, for that reason, somewhat less taxing. So far as I can remember, for the memorization of these poems, there were no exemptions. Everyone, with trembling voice and sweaty palms, wobbly knees and quickened pulse, was expected to walk to the front of the classroom. There, he would stand before the anxious gaze of his classmates, clear his throat, raise his eyes, annunciate his words, and deliver, as flawlessly as possible (and with dramatic inflection for extra credit!) the dreaded poem over which he’d spent the last few weeks toiling.

To this day, I can remember two of the poems that we were assigned: Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky and Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. The first, which is nestled in Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass, is regarded as one of the great “nonsense” poems in the English language. I’m not so sure this is a distinction of which Carroll—a prodigious writer on various themes—would be especially proud. I, for one, don’t wish to be associated with nonsense after death. Nevertheless, the one nonsensical line of his that will forever stick with me, to which I can’t help myself from making reference whenever the time is right, is “O frabjous day! Calloh! Callay!”  

Only the happiest of days are deserving of the word, frabjous, a delightful neologism to which Carroll gave birth. 

Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, is a far less light-hearted affair. It is, no less for the boy aged twelve years than for the man aged thirty, a profound meditation on the nature of life. It forces us to think about just how contingent the whole thing is. Each day, whether we realize it or not, we encounter innumerable paths that we can either take or skip, pursue or pass. Paths of conduct, paths of behavior, paths of action or inaction, paths of goodness or evil—each path is a choice that can guide and shape our life. Which will you choose? The choice of one necessarily excludes the other.

Even to this day, I often repeat to myself Frost’s closing line: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference”. 

It’s a bit haunting, no? 

We assume that this “difference” is a kind of benefit conferred upon the chooser, a better state of being than that into which he might’ve otherwise walked. An optimist might content himself in believing this to be true, but Frost is, not unlike the mysterious oracle at Delphi, deliberately obscure about the whole thing. He’s purposely enigmatic. He says nothing of the superiority of the less traveled road, only that it is (slightly) less traveled. Yes, it makes all the difference, but does it make anything better? 

A question over which we all might do well to ponder a while. 

Sadly, the story of Mr. Bodnar ends on a rather disquieting note. According to the police reports, his interests included not only poetry, but pederasty. Yikes! Come to find out, it was his habit not only to recite Greek poets, but to imitate their amorous approach to underaged boys. So much for the polished sophisticate to whom I looked up! So much for the teacher unanimously voted as the children’s favorite! He was arrested, to the utter shock and disgust of everyone in the community, for having possessed no small amount of child pornography and for having attempted, and thankfully failed, to lure more than a few young boys into his car. 

Mr. Bodnar was, in a literal sense, a groomer before grooming was cool. Something of a trailblazer in the mid-2000s, he strode down this iniquitous road long before the practice of sexualizing the young and innocent became a standard part of the American public school curriculum (of which it now appears to be, in many hyper-liberal school districts such as that in which I was brought up, a veritable cornerstone). Unfortunately for him, however, his progressivism was somewhat premature: the sexual revolutionaries weren’t then articulating the ideas to which they so zealously give voice today. 

Nevertheless, I can’t say that I don’t owe him a debt of gratitude, however small. Mr. Bodnar taught me the importance of memorizing poetry. For that alone, I cannot but be grateful to the man (even if I’m forced to extend my thanks to a convicted pedophile. So be it!). 

Memorizing poetry, I’ve come to learn, is about as edifying an activity as one can spend his time on. There’s no better way to occupy one’s leisure. It is, for me at least, a journey upon which I’ll be forever eager and happy to embark. It’s a venture at whose end, one is guaranteed to find some treasure. Along the way, it heightens the sentiments and deepens the soul. It strengthens the faculty of recall and sharpens the aesthetic sense. It polishes the manners and stimulates the intellect. And, if it’s sociability you seek, it makes you the type of person with whom everyone wants to talk. It equips you with a wonderful trove of references to beautify your conversation. 

The ability to quote poetry is an adornment to the mind. It’s an ornament of thought with which to make your words prettier and your feelings lovelier. Yet still, beyond that, it does something deeper. It furnishes your mind with sublime notions. It acclimates you to lofty concepts. It invites you to hover among the clouds. It fills you up with elegant rhymes, paces you with timely phrases, and submerges you in profound insights. It acquaints you with immortal notes that shall never fear death. 

The unpoetic mind is an unfurnished one. No—I’ll go a bit further: the unpoetic mind is an unfinished one. It is devoid of beauty. It is barren of elegance. It is missing an essential something without which it can fully be. In a word, it’s not the kind of place in which anyone would want to reside for more than a few minutes. It’s certainly no place one would wish to call home. 

Knowing a poem by heart is like owning a share of a company; the company is the poet, while the share is his work. What differentiates it from a common share of, say, IBM or Apple on the New York Stock Exchange is that it will never fail to appreciate with time. On the initial investment, the poem will always return a healthy profit. You can always expect it to shower you with its bounty. Its value will never decrease. It will never be worth nothing. It can be shared with a friend at no loss to you. It can be given away freely, and yet always be yours.

But, really, it’s a joint-ownership. It’s a joint-ownership between you, the poet, and everyone else to whom it’s bequeathed. It’s at once universally and intimately held by you and all your poetic kindred. 

As you come to possess a poem, the spirit of its author, in turn, begins to possess you. You become permeated by his genius. You begin to feel the inspiration by which he was driven to breathe life into his gestating words. Through this process, there is an interchange of selves. You become as though one. A little piece of you is sacrificed to him. You cannot see this phenomenon in action; it can only be felt. The end result is the enrichment of the living and the divination of the dead. 

I think that neatly sums up why you should memorize poetry. I’ll now comment briefly on how to go about this task. 

First, choose a poem that’s deeply meaningful to you. As is the case with all things profound, the deeper the better. 

I’ll get into the more practical pointers for how to go about memorizing it in due time, but this—the extent to which a poem moves you—can’t be overstated. The impact that the poem has on you is of primary concern. If it hardly nudges you, it’s undeserving of your sustained attention. You can read it, examine it critically, applaud or deplore it, and briskly move on. You can even forget about it forever, if you wish. 

If, however, it lifts and transports you to the empyrean and back, if it’s the cause of some transcendental experience that turns your world upside down,  if it makes you just a little bit dizzy, it demands a closer look. Don’t withhold from it that look. Dive into the work and scrutinize it closely. Learn its every contour and trace its magic form. Resign yourself to its influence and dance inside the vertigo.  

You ask, ‘Where should I begin to look for meaning?’ 

It’s difficult to say. 

Meaning manifests itself in different ways. It reveals itself in unexpected places at unannounced hours. It seldom looks the same when presented to two different people. Heck!—it might not even look the same to you when you experience it at two different times in your own life. Of course, you can outsource the job by simply googling, “The best poems of all time”, and hope that there’s one among the top ten or twenty with which you resonate. But there’s something dry and impersonal about this approach. 

I’ve learned, in dealing with such delicate matters, that algorithms are not the best arbiters. They can’t decide for us the things to which we ought to affix importance. They cannot be our aesthetic surrogates. 

Better still is to sit down and actually read poetry. That’s right! Find a book of poetry and read it. But don’t just read it in a perfunctory way. Don’t just read it to distract you from the YouTube ad that’s just popped up. Read it closely, deeply, inquiringly, and—I insist on this— aloud. Poetry must be read aloud. The euphony of a poem might just stop you in your tracks. It might convince you, right there on the spot, of the need to possess its musical splendor. 

I’ll give you an example of a deeply meaningful and musical poem that I recently came across: If–, by the great English poet Rudyard Kipling. 

I spent a week perusing all of Kipling’s short stories, vignettes, and poems–a vast collection of writings by which I was, overall, thoroughly impressed. Many of his poems are good, some are even sublime, but If– struck me like a thunderbolt. I read it aloud and I read it again. The repetition of “if” at the start of every other line haunted me long after I returned the book to its shelf. I underlined my favorite passages, to which I added scribbles of commentary in the narrow margins. I circled words and planted stars next to lines that called out for further study. 

I didn’t set out to read Kipling with the intention of discovering a profoundly meaningful work. I didn’t intend to find in his many selections of verse a gem with which to adorn my thoughts. It just happened. It was, to my mind, a happy accident. Perhaps it was an act of fate. Perhaps the Muses predetermined it to go this way. Whatever the case, all that was left to me was to embrace the gift and take possession of the work. 

And, so, I set out to memorize it. 

Which leads me to the following: 

Second, memorize no more than four lines at one sitting. Any amount exceeding this quantity threatens the orderliness and composure of your mind. Dunbar’s number, which imposes a limit on the number of people a single human can know, is said to be one hundred and fifty. This is the extent to which your social connections can reach. In poetry, instead of Dunbar’s number, we’ll call it Finneran’s number. 

And what is that number, you ask? 


Commit to memory no more than four lines at a time. Beyond this threshold, the average mind (of which I, for one, am most humbly possessed) simply cannot go. Those equipped with an eidetic or photographic memory, however, are free to shake off and venture beyond this constraint. But, for the rest of us, four lines are quite enough. Try to become comfortable with four lines in a single day. Over the course of three to five days, try to become their master. 

Kipling’s If– serves as a good example of a poem that can be broken down into manageable segments of four. It has four stanzas comprising eight lines each. Over the course of four days, I memorized the following four lines: 

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue

Or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch;

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much”. 

It was only after the passage of four days that I began to feel completely at ease with these lines. Evidence of this, for me, is an ability to recite them immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once I can do this, I know the lines are mine.

Third, record yourself reciting these lines. I can recall, way back in a simple, bygone era upon which cell phones hadn’t yet impinged, the widespread use of recording devices to practice memorizing scripts or learning languages. With a vividness undistorted by the passage of time, I can remember the painful hours spent with the little recording device on which the Torah portion for my Bar Mitzvah was stored. For hours on end, I would play it, stop it, rewind it, and play it again, muttering along to my Rabbi’s gravelly voice. 

Today, the magical little devices on which we text, call, tweet, and idle perform the same job, and perform it better. Open the “voice memo” app on your phone (of which every phone, I think, has some version). Record yourself reciting the poem slowly, articulately, and with just enough inflection and panache to spice the whole thing up. Be sure the emphasize the words with which you’re having trouble. Try to capture the cadence and the proper rhythm. Save it and play it again and again. 

When should you listen to it? No time is unsuitable, but I think the best time to listen is while you’re driving in the car. This is precisely what I do.

Instead of listening to the same old song on the radio or letting my directionless thoughts wander to the moon, I play back the poem. I speak with the recording twice, and then, independent of its guidance, I recite it alone. I repeat this sequence until, at last, I arrive at my destination. 

During the course of my twenty-minute commute to work, for instance, I end up reciting the poem almost as many times. And then, on my commute home, I repeat the practice. It keeps the mind busily engaged, stimulated, and active while performing the rote activity of navigating familiar roads. It provides me with the quiet environment needed to focus on the crisp annunciation of words. And, of course, the acoustics in the car (even in my shabby car) are always nice. 

Other good times to recite your poetry include when you’re out on a walk, while you’re waiting in line, while you’re in the restroom, or while you’re readying yourself for bed.

Finally, the last bit of advice is to “act out” some of the poem’s more difficult scenes—either physically or mentally. In my own case, I’ve found that gesticulations are a most useful aid. I will, in a sense, “perform” a segment of the poem with my hands, combining the memory of the muscles to that of the mind. 

As it relates to the poem If—, I encountered no small difficulty in my attempt to memorize the following lines: 

“If you can make one heap of all your winnings,

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss…”

It was hand gestures that relieved me from a job to which my feeble mind was, at this point, unequal. Whenever I approach this line, I turn my hands so that their palms are up, as though they’re carrying a big “heap” of all my winnings. No sooner are they carrying this tremendous load than they’re turning at the wrist and “pitching” and “tossing” invisible coins (in the style of the old English gambling game, pitch-and-toss). 

Voilà!Before you know it, you’ve memorized a poem. At this point, I’ve given you the reasons why you should memorize poetry, and the techniques with which you can begin to do so. As far as I’m concerned, little else remains to be said, but much remains to be done! Go now!—find yourself a deeply meaningful poem. Read it. Record it. Possess it. Gain mastery over it. Share it with others. Thank the passion, though not the perversion, of Mr. Bodnar and embrace this edifying challenge. 

To borrow from Kipling, if you choose to take it up, “Yours (will be) the Earth, and everything that’s in it”. Nothing short of this, should you come to own a poem.

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