Getting It by Heart: The Value in Memorizing Poetry

A recent survey by Common Sense Census on media use by tweens and teens presents, in my opinion, an alarming picture of how young people ages eight to 18 spend their time outside of school.  American teens report that they spend an average of nine hours a day consuming media, not including time spent in front of a screen for school or homework. Of even more concern is the statistic that nearly two-thirds of teens who multitask say they do not believe that watching television, texting or using social media while doing homework affects the quality of their work. They are mistaken.

We cannot and do not want to strip students of their devices, but we must find ways to help them single-task and encourage uninterrupted reading.. Students need to downshift – go slower with more power – in order to read demanding literature, especially poetry.

Now that even the phone numbers of close family members have moved from the hard drive between our ears to the hard drives of our smartphones, some may think that asking students to memorize poetry is a practice that should have been discarded along with chalk and rubber tipped pointers. But this is not so. Memorizing poetry is a powerful way to learn about the moves that poets make. It is also a contemplative task that can help to counterbalance students’ multi-tasking and busy lives. As William Wordsworth noted in 1808, “the world is too much with us.”

In order to learn a poem by heart, you must surrender yourself to it, proceeding often with incomplete comprehension, but trusting in the words. Memorization helps students to understand the text they are working with because it forces them to follow the mind of the poet and to recreate the experience and feelings that went into the poem’s composition.

Kids can do this. Most teenagers carry around hundreds of song lyrics in their heads. They instinctively know how rhythm, rhyme and repetition contribute to the ease with which a lyric “sticks” in one’s head. Invite your students to choose a poem and commit it to memory. The Poetry Out Loud website offers a wonderful collection of poems ideally suited to the task.

To help students memorize, suggest they:

  • Rewrite the poem by hand several times. Each time, try to write more and more of it from memory
  • Read the poem aloud before going to sleep at night, and repeat it when you wake up
  • Carry a copy of the poem with you. You’ll find several moments throughout the day to reread or recite it

To memorize a poem is to own it. Like nuts squirreled away for winter, the poems you have by heart nourish you in times of trouble and provide comfort in moments of solitude. According to the great actor Paul Robeson, “if we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

I still remember lines from The Merchant of Venice that I was required to memorize in 9th grade, “the quality of mercy is not strained …” You may argue why bother with memorization when you can Google the speech in a heartbeat? And to that I say, it wouldn’t be the same, though, would it?