October 6, 2023

Memorize some poetry

I think you should memorize some poetry, even just a little. I’ve been attempting this lately and I can recommend it highly.

I’m no great reader or appreciator of poetry. I took some classes in college and have attended readings here and there, but I’m not a poet nor am I particularly well versed. But what I’ve discovered is that finding a few poems to memorize and then really doing it has been very good for the psyche. Having poems you appreciate really in there and summonable on demand will:

  • Provide a salutary alternative you can turn to when your mind is doing something you’d rather it not do (worrying, catastrophizing, etc.).
  • Deepen your appreciation for poetry as a medium and for language more broadly.
  • Enrich your experience of the world. When you see or hear something that brings a memorized poem to mind you’ll find your experience enlivened.
  • Feel inherently satisfying.

So do this: choose a poet you have an inkling you might like and check out a couple books from the library, and then just poke around a bit. Don’t feel obliged to read cover-to-cover. When something catches your eye or ear, read it with the question in mind: “Might I want to remember this forever?” That question itself is a good way of anchoring your attention, and it’s a pretty tight filter.

Choose something short, and when you’ve found it, make a small printed-out copy of the poem. Focus on one stanza at a time. Read it and keep it in short term memory, then recite it a few times. Then wait a bit. You will have forgotten it within a few minutes, but maybe have part of it. Pay close attention to what you’ve forgotten and try to notice why. You might have substituted a synonym for the word the poet actually chose. Which is always an interesting opportunity to ask why the poet chose the specific word they did choose. This is the main mechanism by which you’ll find your appreciation for the form growing. Try to ingest the gestalt of the thing. Visualize what’s happening. Or notice connections between lines, like similar sounds or rhymes, even in free verse. After a few iterations of this “try, fail, interrogate, correct” process, especially if over multiple days with sleep intervening to solidify, things get pretty well set in the noggin. Then it’s just a matter of periodically revisiting and correcting any errors.

Do this at your desk, in lieu of some other distraction, or when you’re out walking, or otherwise unoccupied. With close attention it won’t take you long to memorize some verse.

So far I’ve internalized some short poems by Louise Gl├╝ck and Wallace Stevens, and I’m very happy to have them. I think you will be too. And if you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for this,” I would just note that if you’re spending even five minutes a day mindlessly scrolling Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, or what have you, then you have time for this.