Why Memorizing Poetry is Actually Worth Your Time

My senior year of college I decided I was going to memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I scrawled the verses over and over in class instead of writing notes. I sought refuge in the voice of another mind–one whose was miraculously more neurotic than my own mind was during that crazy year. Now the time when the poem was necessary has subsided but the poem remains. I was walking in twilight Manhattan the other day, and it shot into my head: “Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table.”


my instagram post about Eliot, who I’m sure would have utterly reviled instagram were he around for it. and prufrock would not have had the nerve to follow anyone though surely he’d check out the ladies’ twitter pages a few times a day from his own anonymous account, where no one could see his thin legs

Yes, it’s good in the end to have things that’ll rattle through your mind that are more than just crappy pop song lyrics on the radio. (Although, diverging from point of post: I’m obsessed with that new Bastille song “Good Grief,” and I’ve been letting it roam around my head to an irritating degree lately).

It’s good, in the end, to read a poem so obsessively that you just, well, memorize it. I’m not at the point where I can whip out entire poems from the inside of my mouth flawlessly, like some Ivy League magic trick. But I can conjure up some convincing lines, and certainly have enough in my head to write in metallic sharpie on the little notebooks I carry around in my bag like I did the other day.

Why memorizing poetry’s actually worth your time.

  1. You’ll be reading poetry. There’s a misconception that poetry is stodgy, boring, and appropriate only for analyzing on standardized tests. This is false. Poetry is language at its best. With the fewest amount of words, a good poem can take you on the same emotional trip as a novel. Imagine that! I think people are scarred over by scarred over English teachers and ban poetry from their lives. This is a total shame, because you’re closing yourself off from all the somersaults language can do.
  2. People are impressed when you can quote poetry. Or Shakespeare. Or anything relevant, really. Is there anything cooler than having the appropriate line of literature for a situation? Don’t answer that question, it was meant to be rhetorical. I’m sure you can come up with things that you find cooler, but to me, there’s nothing sexier than effortlessly rolling out a line of verse. For example, when I became officially unemployed in September, I had a variation of Richard II’s opening line: “Now is the fall of our unemployment…” and it cracked me up for enough time to distract myself that I am unemployed. I also sometimes quote a particular love poem when I am in the particular mood, which is, at the very least, endearing in an earnest, 18th-century kind of way.
  3.  It’s a delightful mental exercise. The time for good old mental acrobats just for self betterment is marginalized. People go for runs, they do sudokus, they get facials all in the name of taking care of themselves. How about taking care of the soul?
  4. Finally, just having lines swimming around in your head can be a source of comfort, especially when they come up for air at just the right moment. I was on the train the other day, a day so beautiful that the sunshine was making it hard for me to read but I didn’t mind. I was excited for my destination (“joy is the ancitipation of joy”–rabih alameddine in his book an unnecessary woman) and a few lines of an Edward Hirsch poem came into my head. “My head is skylight / my heart is dawn” And that is what my head and heart were at the moment. He said it for me, better than I ever could’ve. For once I wasn’t struggling to put into words the world as I saw it, and felt it.

Okay, so those are the reasons that I read poetry to the point of memorization. I’m not deliberate about it–it just sort of happens.

If you’re going to start with a poem, I recommend Mary Oliver, because her poems are like iced tea at the end of a day spent at a lake in summer. You’re on an Adirondack chair. Someone’s just gotten up from the chair next to you, and it rocks gently. Someone’s cooking dinner, and you know you’ll eat outside, citronella candles ablaze illuminating bottles of wine and lots of food. Elsewhere you hear children laughing and your friends talking to each other. You have a book open on your lap but you’re not reading it. You’re drinking iced tea and watching nature flicker and move in the last moments of sunlight, when the light is at its most palatable. That is Mary Oliver.

So start with Mary O, and see where it goes.

One thought on “Why Memorizing Poetry is Actually Worth Your Time

  1. Elena…. It was a ROUGH day!!!!!!! Reading your blog was a happy and oh-so-worthwhile distraction! EVERY reason you state for memorizing poetry is valid, but my favorite is #4 “… lines swimming around in your head can be a source of comfort.” INDEED! Today at lunch I revisited a favorite by Jane Hirshfield. Granted … I didn’t memorize but here’s a few lines I’d like to share:

    And see how the flesh grows back
    across a wound, with a great vehemence,
    more strong
    than the simple, untested surface before.
    There’s a name for it on horses,
    when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh………….(From: For What Binds Us)

    I’m just soooooo PROUD of you and I will be a loyal reader! I will also share this with my students and colleagues! Much love!


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