Best way to memorize poetry?
July 31, 2016 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Part of Kid BlahLaLa's summer schoolwork is memorizing two poems. What's the best way to do this?

He's a bright kid and totally capable of doing it, but I'm not sure what the best tactics are. Say it aloud a jillion times? Write it out and rewrite it?

One poem is 16 lines, and is written in contemporary "normal" English.

The other is 26 lines and it's tough, old school language, non-rhyming, lots of tricky phrasing.

I'm a word nerd and I'm not sure how I'd go about this, and I have even less of an idea how to help him. If it makes a difference, he's 13, and going into 8th grade.
posted by BlahLaLa to Education (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I learned a technique where you cover the right hand sideof the page, started with about 1 word, and moving it left as you learn it.
posted by lorimt at 12:30 PM on July 31, 2016

Writing it out, longhand, backwards.

Write the last line. Then write the penultimate line and the last line. Then the the antepenultimate, penultimate, ultimate. Continue until you get to the first one. This way you know it better as it goes on, and you practice the transitions from one line to the next a lot so it sort of carries you through.
posted by KathrynT at 12:40 PM on July 31, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Repetition is the key, in my experience. When you need to learn something by rote—and sometimes you just have to, even though rote memorization is boring—there's no substitute for repetition. That said, I have some tricks.

Repeating it in a variety of ways helps. Writing it and saying it, for instance, works better than doing one or the other. I also find that for some reason if I say something in a silly voice—pompously and self-importantly, or with an outrageous fake French accent or something—it helps it stick in my mind. It also makes it less crushingly boring, which for a 13-year-old will probably be the main obstacle.

Also I have a much easier time memorizing things if I actually understand them, which I could see being an issue especially for the second poem, so taking the time to break down the language and make sure he really "gets" it (at least at a surface level—this is poetry after all) may help a lot.

Finally, I would suggest breaking the poems up into stanzas and memorizing them one stanza at a time. Alternate between reciting individual stanzas and recoting everything he knows so far, so that he practices with both the whole and the parts. And as particular verses or phrases turn out to be especially difficult, pay extra attention to those. When he's done he should be able to do multiple perfect run-throughs in a row, and he should check himself over the summer to make sure the memory hasn't faded.

Attack it from multiple angles, is the gist of it. That, and silly voices.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:43 PM on July 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

Saying it out loud to a rhythm, or a melody if your son is amenable to that, can be very helpful. Likewise, record himself saying it and then listen to it, e.g. while going for a run or doing chores. I am very auditory so saying things and hearing things help me a lot with memorizing; writing is good too but not AS helpful.

Eighth grade is a great time to start thinking about what kind of learner you are and identify study strategies that suit you best, so this is a really good exercise!
posted by telegraph at 12:46 PM on July 31, 2016 [10 favorites]

I've memorized a lot of poems, and still remember many of them. I don't recall my exact technique, but I believe it was mostly reading it silently for a long time, then reading it aloud many times, then trying to do a few lines at a time without the paper in front of me. Start from the beginning each time, so the beginning gets to be super easy. Then you're only adding a few more things to the end each time.

The more you can space this out over a week or so, the better the chance of remembering. You can't do this at the last minute.

... Reminds me, I had aimed to memorize Jabberwocky by the end of summer. Need to get back to that!
posted by hydra77 at 12:47 PM on July 31, 2016

Oh, and if you get resistance from him based on the obvious and difficult-to-refute pointlessness of memorizing some random poem that he has no particular personal attachment to, try to recontextualize the assignment for him as being about learning the skill of memorization rather than "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" or whatever. He may never give a crap about the actual poems, but being good at memorizing things is a skill that will serve him in good stead frequently and throughout his entire life. Not only will he frequently be called upon to do it over the course of his education, but even after that in his work and just his daily life he will often encounter situations where there's just no substitute for fixing something in his memory such that he can recall it perfectly whenever he needs to. It's an important skill and a useful one and one that he can be proud of acquiring as he gets better at it. The skill is much more important than the poems. If somebody had told me that when I was 13, it would have saved me a ton of grief.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:50 PM on July 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

Depends on his learning/memorization style. He could try acting out (making up specific actions for specific words /phrases) the poem as he recites it aloud. That way there's a lot of association going on (aural, oral, sensory - with specific movements in a set sequence associated with the flow of the poem) as he memorizes. More association = easier memorization, and could also help make the poetry come "alive" for him so he also thinks about what it means.
posted by aielen at 1:42 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

If there is any way to set it to music, especially a tune he already knows, that could help.
posted by CathyG at 2:05 PM on July 31, 2016

Start from the beginning each time


Write the last line. Then write the penultimate line and the last line. Then the the antepenultimate, penultimate, ultimate.

Seems like there are two schools there.
I second the "start with the last" approach. This way he'll get more confident the further he gets instead of stumbling more and more as he proceeds.

Source: my 12 year old former self :)
posted by M. at 2:08 PM on July 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sing it
posted by aniola at 2:13 PM on July 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Over 10 years later, I can still recite an entire monologue from Schiller's Maria Stuart in German because I recorded myself saying it so I could listen and speak along with it. I figured since we can all remember the most obscure, esoteric lyrics from songs we heard years and years ago, listening really worms words into your brain.
posted by missmary6 at 2:20 PM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

If he likes to move around, he can post the poem at one end of a track or swimming pool, read a line, do a lap while reciting the line to himself, then trying to add another one for the next lap.
posted by chaiminda at 2:40 PM on July 31, 2016

At this age, I did the "read straight through" a jillion times approach with everything from lines in plays to Yeats' "The Stolen Child". My brain tends to learn the rhyming feet first and then fill in the rest: visual learners might appreciate highlighting these. With the older stuff, I remember a teacher having us write it out and look up all the words so we'd understand them and not just be learning them en rote, which is helpful if you loose your place (if you know what's going on, you're more likely to logically figure out what comes next). I also learned to recite the Gettysburg Address while learning to juggle - I found the having a physical motion helped me keep track of the archaic rhythms, so if he happens to lean towards kinesthetic learning, there's one weird trick in the arsenal, anyway.

For the record, I still have stuff pop up in my head from time to time that I learned around 13 and I turn 30 soon, so it definitely stuck. I also feel like it enriched my life/deepened my appreciation of the written word/won me more than a few bets, so you're welcome to share any of those benefits with the kid if he starts to get frustrated.
posted by theweasel at 2:40 PM on July 31, 2016

I memorized things when I was his age by typing them out, sticking the paper between two sheets of clear contact paper (cheaper than laminating) and taping it in the shower. then every time i took a shower, i'd read and recite over and over again.

also, there's this site which I've found helpful as an adult (or any site that converts text into the first letter of each word).
posted by carlypennylane at 2:47 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have zero experience with this. However, I've recently been reading books about puppy training. I've been focusing on positive reinforcement and clicker training. Doesn't sound related, does it? Well, in one of the books (can't remember which one), the author specifically talks about using psychological tricks to memorize poetry. How? By starting with the end.

The idea is that if you start with the last chunk and memorize forward, then each earlier piece serves as a trigger to help you remember the next piece. I'm not really conveying this well, but when explained by a pro psychologist it makes perfect sense. If I were to memorize a poem (or lines for a play), I would choose this method.
posted by jdroth at 2:49 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Few ideas:

He can record himself reading it in a variety of ways, then listen back to himself saying it. I used this for learning lines for drama pieces at school.

Flashcards - e.g. first two words of a line on one side, the whole line on the other; one line on one side, the succeeding/preceding line on the other. I have found this value useful for learning stuff over the years, there are lots of useful flashcard apps out there - this is a good one on multiple platforms.

He can paste different lines in different locations around the house, in an order where he can "discover" them on a obvious walking route. So he can visualise the progress of them poem as a journey through the building. He then just needs to look at them and read them when he passes them.

As has been said above, what will work for some won't work for others, but the best way to get secure memorisation is, in any case, to approach the problem is several ways at once.
posted by howfar at 2:55 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding (thirding?) missmary6's comment on this - I had to act a long part on stage once, with no experience doing it (or memorizing lines). I recorded my parts and listened to them (and recited along with them) in the car to and from rehearsals. I think it worked. After all, that's how we learn songs, by singing along with them on the radio, right?
posted by BillMcMurdo at 2:59 PM on July 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've had to memorize and then repeat verbatim various poems, creeds, and other wordy things throughout my life. I always start off by reading it once all the way through. Then I start with the first line. I read it, then look away and repeat it. If I can correctly perform the first line, I see if I can do the first and second correctly without looking, and so on and so forth until I've got the whole thing memorized. At least, that's been working for me since about high school. Good luck to your kid!
posted by A Bad Catholic at 4:05 PM on July 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was in middle school I had to memorize the adjectives in French that go before the verb. They're set up in a little rhyming poem, but I had a hard time remembering them until my mom and I put on a hip hop radio station and rapped them. I still remember them!
posted by radioamy at 4:55 PM on July 31, 2016

In grade 4, our teacher would write a poem on the board at the start of each month. Each morning, we would recite the poem. However as each day went on, the teacher would erase a few words till at the end of the month the board was blank and we would recite the whole poem.

You could write the poems on a white board or poster on the kitchen wall. Have him recite the poem a few times a day and delete some words daily till he knows poems by heart.

I'm suggesting the kitchen wall but you can pick a place that is seen often throughout the day.
posted by Coffeetyme at 6:05 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

"In 1995, the Academy commissioned poet John Hollander to assemble a poetry anthology that emphasized the pleasure of memorization and recitation. The result was Committed to Memory, published by Books & Co./Turtle Point, in conjunction with the Academy of American Poets."

Here it is, for free, with links to all the poems on the AAP site. Do not skip the introduction. It will tell you how and why to memorize poetry. Then, see the links to poems to memorize at the bottom. Choosing a good, musical poem is the most important part of the process.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:39 PM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Upon rereading your question: Scratch the last part of my silly comment and just read the intro sorry!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:40 PM on July 31, 2016

Try methods that actors use to memorize scripts! Different people swear by different methods, so Kid BlahLaLa should pick what sounds best to him. It might help to think about what methods generally help him learn best -- is he an auditory/musical, kinesthetic/physical, verbal, visual, spatial, social, solitary, or logical type of learner? Try (or invent!) methods that match his preferred style(s). He could try all or any of the following:

- Copy the poem out longhand, or re-type it word by word (once or several times).
- Repeat it over and over while walking (this seems like a small thing, but many people I know swear by it). You could also try tapping, clapping, bopping, or any other repetitive physical movement. Use your paper copy to read from at first and wean yourself off it as the words start to stick.
- Laminate a copy of the poem and put it in the shower, stick it to a mirror, take it with you to the gym or on the bus, or anywhere else that you can repeat it to yourself over and over again.
- Once you've memorized it fairly well, write each line of the poem on a separate card. Number them. Shuffle them. Picking up cards one at a time, try to recite the next line of the poem (or the entire rest of the poem) that follows the line on the card you're holding. Work through the entire deck this way.
- Make a recording of yourself speaking the poem out loud. Play it over and over again and repeat along.
- Create or adapt a melody for the words and practice it by singing. Eventually, practice without the melody.
- Imagine images for each line -- this may be literal images of what is happening in each line, or mnemonics that help remind you of specific words or sounds. It may help to imagine walking through a space (like a long hallway) in which the images that correspond to your text occur in order.
- Take an unsharpened pencil, a blunt chopstick, or something similar, and use it to trace the words onto the palm of your hand as you say them. (Sound weird? I've seen it work for some.)
- Memorize with someone else. Get them to read one line, and you try to give them the next line without peeking. Or, simply repeat after them as they read.
posted by ourobouros at 8:18 PM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

With a whiteboard marker you can usually write on the shower walls (whether tile or wraparound). I used to do this in grad school to memorize vocab words in foreign language or poems or chunks of Scripture. You can spend a lot of time in the shower shampooing your hair and reading over a stanza a dozen times in a row!

(People who memorize large chunks of things like Scripture or Greek epics usually prefer starting from the end and working towards the beginning, so you gain confidence as you go along.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:06 PM on July 31, 2016

I can't stand listening to recordings of myself. I get too wrapped up in how weird I sound. I have, however, memorized 40-odd poems by repeatedly listening to professional recordings of poetry readings over the years. The intention wasn't to memorize them, per se, but it just happened as a result of enjoying the lyricism of the recordings I selected. I've also learned a number of poems that my dad used to recite to me as a kid. Again, just as a result of the repetition of hearing them so frequently.
posted by xyzzy at 1:38 AM on August 1, 2016

What kind of learner is KidB? All of this advice is great- for a particular type of learner. If KidB is a kinesthetic type, then reading it aloud with movement will be key. If KidB is an auditory learner, then recording it and listening/speaking along with the recording will be helpful.

The first step is to think back about KidB's learning style and then choose from one or more of these wonderful suggestions the Metafilter has made!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:16 AM on August 1, 2016

High school teacher here. You have a lot of great ideas and this is also a perfect opportunity to find out out the best ways your son learns.

There are many different learning styles that can be classified in different ways, but they can boil down to either visual/spatial, auditory/oral, and kinesthetic/tactile. Here's a VAK quiz he can take to help him figure out where his strengths lie. Note this is NOT the same thing as multiple intelligences; this is just a way to help figure out how people learn.

Different Learning Styles

Visual (spatial):You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding. Read the poem, write the poem, illustrate the poem, create a story about the poem, color code key words to remember. Visual learners can get caught up integrating their surroundings when they work, so it can be helpful to do all of this in a quiet place or a place he's used to, sense-wise, so he doesn't need to take his surroundings in so much and process.

Auditory/oral: You prefer using sound and music. Sing the poem. Memorize it as someone else reads it aloud. Read it to yourself aloud. I taught my homeroom Jabberwocky by singing it bits at a time until they could sing the whole thing at a talent show.

Kinesthetic/tactile: You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch. Read it, sing it, make a dance or hand movements to go with it. Take lots of breaks to let the body internalize the memorization (a lot like how shavasana helps acclimate at the end of yoga).

Once he knows in which ways he best takes information in, he can find ideas that most help. All of the ideas upthread are great but some will help more than others depending on his learning style.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:48 AM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

write out the poem by hand over and over and over and over and over. every day. for weeks.
it sucks but it works.
posted by evilmonk at 1:54 PM on August 1, 2016

Response by poster: He used the "many different ways" approach -- listening to someone recite the poem on YouTube, while reading along with a printout of the words, while speaking along too. I had him do each poem five times in a row, once per day. Within a couple of days he had parts of it. About a week later he almost has them both memorized. School starts in another week so I'm pretty sure he'll be all set by then. Easy peasy.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:04 PM on August 29, 2016

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