Poems By Heart: On the Valuing of Memorizing

Hearts from Branches

When the days shorten and grow chill, I turn to knitting, quilting, and crossword puzzles. The other day I was working on a  puzzle (‘My Stars!’ by Charles M. Deber, originally published in The New York Times.) Hmmm….what was a five-letter word for the clue ‘Commit to memory’? The answer was: ‘learn’.

What does it mean to learn something?

When I was in grade school,( classically the ‘grammar stage’of development when memorization was stressed) memorizing facts or poems–learning things “by heart”–was pedagogically passé.  I, have, however, always felt that, contrary to fashion, learning a few selected things by heart was the gold standard. Naturally, I don’t mean simply mean the ability to parrot without understanding. Instead, I mean that there is a confidence in being absolutely certain of a particular bit of material that can then anchor new explorations and the creation of new work.


Ice Heart and Shoe

Personally, I have found value in memorizing many different kind of material, from the Pythagorean theorem, the colors of the rainbow, and the books of the Old and New Testaments to the U.S. presidents in chronological order. What I most enjoy memorizing (and repeating over and over in odd moments) are poems I love.

I have been memorizing poems my whole life, beginning (like most of us) with nursery rhymes, moving on to proverbial sayings, and song lyrics and such poems as relatives had memorized. My father recited “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service with gusto, and my sister can still recite it, a breakneck speed, in under a minute. Later, in high school, I began making the effort (thanks to all my English teachers) to memorize poems. It is a practice I have continued fitfully ever since. For several decades, I had a file folder (an actual blue paper file with sheets of typewritten paper in it!) labelled “Solaces: Poems Committed to Memory”.

Heart Graffito

This year, I expanded to a three-ring binder, and I included copies of poems I have securely in my ‘neural anthology’ as well as those I have about three-quarters of but still need some work. (I have found that many of the longer poems require periodic polishing to remain clear, but once something is truly learnt by heart then it doesn’t take much to brush up. The oftener it is reviewed, the more reliably it can be called up. Some frequently revisited  favorites are as deeply engraved as the Pledge of Allegiance.Heart Notebook

The majority of the ones I have memorized are formally structured using rhyme and meter.

Why do I do this? What is the point? Pleasure, primarily. I am intrigued by why my brain responds to language poetically patterned, and I keep coming back to this ground-breaking research, The Neural Lyre, first published in 1983 in Poetry Magazine, by Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel. Are we, I wonder, hardwired to respond to musical language? If so, why? And I am fascinated by more recent research that suggest memories of music and poetry can still be accessible after other problems remembering facts arise.

As my hearing becomes (ever so slightly) less acute and my eyesight needs (just a few) props — so that’s why my Condensed Oxford English Dictionary came equipped with a little drawer and a huge magnifying glass! — I know there is a chance I might, one distant day, become unable to enjoy reading, viewing a film, sewing, taking in an exhibit of art, hearing a lecturer, or listening to music. If that day ever comes, I plan to deepen my practice of breath work, explore the textures of flowers and vegetables and fruits, and continue to explore the contours of poems I have safe in my heart.Heart of Tar

Below is my ‘life list’ of poems. The ones with asterisks are Recite On Demand. The others are, shall we say, Under Construction.

In future posts, I plan to share insights I have had about specific classic poems that I could not have had without the experience of committing them to memory; techniques for memorizing that have served me well; and a few stories, of my own and of others, of moments when the ability to call a poem to mind has been a valuable thing.

For now, I invite you to let me know if there is a poem you particularly cherish, or if you have thoughts on the merits of memorization generally — what do you know by heart? If you want to hold my feet to the fire, next time you see me you can ask me to recite an asterisked poem–I would love it if you have a poem to recite, too.

Heart Leaf

Poems Memorized (*) and Becoming Memorized         November 2014

Leslie Schultz
“Twilight at Tenney Park”*
“Gilbert’s Hobby”*

Robert Francis

Emily Dickinson
“441  This is my letter to the World”
“712  Because I could not stop for Death”
“445  They shut me up in Prose”
“656  I started early, took my dog”*
“249 Wild nights, wild nights”*
“254 Hope is the thing with Feathers”*
“341 After great pain”*
“288 I’m Nobody. Who are you?”*
737 “The moon was but a chin of gold”
“214 I taste a liquor never brewed”

Robert Frost
“Provide, Provide”
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”*
“Fire and Ice”*
“Acquainted with the Night”
“Nothing Gold Can Stay”*

William Butler Years
“No Second Troy”
“Lines Written in Dejection”*
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
“Among School Children”
“Sailing to Byzantium”
“The Wild Swans at Coole”*
“An Irish Airman Forsees His Death”*
“The Second Coming”
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”*
“When You Are Old”
“Who Goes with Fergus?”*
“The Magi”
“A Coat”*
“The Scholars”*
“To be carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee”

William Shakespeare
“116 CXVI Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds”*
“29 XXIX When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes”*
“73 LVIII That Time of Year Though Mayst in Me Behold”*
“130 CXXX My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”*

Gerard Manly Hopkins
“Spring and Fall to a Young Child”*
“Pied Beauty”

William Wordsworth
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”* (often cited as “Daffodils”)

Richard Wilbur
“Two Voices in a Meadow”*
“Advice to a Prophet”

Wilfred Owen
“Dulce et Decorum Est”
“Arms and the Boy”

Ronald Wallace
“Fathers and Daughters”*

Arthur Guiterman
“On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness”

Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn
“The Golf Links”*

William Blake
“A Poison Tree”
“The Sick Rose”*
“They Tyger

T.S. Eliot
“The Magi”
“The Song of the Jellicles”
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Carl Sandburg

Edna St. Vincent Millay
“Oh, Burdock”*

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“The Eagle”
“The Lady of Shallot”

George Gordon, Lord Byron
“She Walks in Beauty”

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Thomas Lovell Beddoes
“A lake”*

Rosalia de Castro
“Black Mood”*

John Keats
“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

Mary Oliver
“Wild Geese”

James Wright
“A Blessing”

A.E. Houseman
“Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now”

Robert Herrick
“Upon Julia’s Clothes”*

Robert Southwell
“The Burning Babe”*

Richard Lovelace
“To Althea, From Prison”

Gold Heart

Heart Burning Bush

Until another Wednesday, wishing you well!


5 thoughts on “Poems By Heart: On the Valuing of Memorizing

  1. Hi Beth,

    So glad this might inspire you to memorize new things for today! I hope to hear sometime what you decide upon. In upcoming posts, I am going to go into some other aspects of this topic in more depth–not sure yet how I will illustrate it, but I know something will come to me!


  2. Leslie, What a wonderful post! I love the combination of images and words in this post. Plus the idea of memorizing anything of importance is worth revisiting often. I’m glad you referred to the Pledge of Allegiance. It made me consider all the other things I have memorized in my head – most from my Catholic upbringing – and how I need to expand that to writing that is important to me now. Loved it. Thanks, Beth

  3. Hi Sally,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses. I know what you mean when you say that a poem is like a prayer. And I think, too, that prayers can be poems. It is the same with mantra. One of the poems I plan to write about in-depth is Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall to a Young Child”. This year as I “re-installed” it in my memory (which is an effort of love for me) I saw some new-to-me aspects to it that I will share in another post. It is great that you know the poem so well, too.

    I love the description you gave of how lines float up, unbidden, unsummoned, throughout the day. I know just what you mean, and it is very interesting the lines that come to you frequently. I will make a point of noticing which ones come into my brain this week.


  4. I am back from the clinic, and just wanted to add that I feel it lovely how much you memorize! Sorry for the quick note! I look forward to your readers’ opinions on the topic (rare for me to write here….especially so quickly!). Excuse any errors.

    A marvelous post!

  5. Good morning Leslie,

    Such a lovely post today! I love Manley Hopkins “Spring and Fall, to a Young Child,” and enjoy reading and rereading that poem throughout my life…it is just this sort of poem, a favorite, that absolutely strikes me to the core, and made me feel as a young girl that poetry was home to me. Often I recall the rhythm of the poem, and always the last line “…it is Margaret you mourn for.” It is so sad, and so poignant and true.

    I remember “lines” from poems throughout my days, it seems….even if out of context. The other night after blowing out our evening candle I blurted out “The indelible smell of a snuffed candle.” One day at work I suddenly I said aloud “too late, too late, the witches said.” “Love, love, my season” comes to me often. (Plath, Plath, and Sexton, I’m sure you know).

    I remember in seventh grade Mrs. Wescott assigned several students stanzas from Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk.” I was assigned the first stanza, and still remember it and can recite it “on demand.”

    Mostly though, I enjoy reading and rereading a poem that strikes me so profoundly again and again and again, and being surprised again each time. So I don’t set out to memorize. Every time I read “intimate with rain,” about the tree in Joyce Kilmer’s poem, I feel something happen inside me that is quite unexplainable. I keep this poem by my bedside.

    I am in the health clinic waiting for John to have a routine procedure just now, trying to work through the loud television noise that seems to be present everywhere. So I hope this is clear.

    Richard Holmes speaks about the art of biography as “learning by heart” ( a very profound phrase). I think reciting a poem is rather like prayer.

    Thought, thoughts. Thank you for sharing yours.

    Love, Sally

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