- Books, Literature, and Writing
How To Memorize A Poem
For a while in my career I was known as the person who could perform from memory poems of any length. On two days notice for instance I was able to perform, in its entirety, Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." That performance took 45 minutes! People thought I had some sort of amazing memory. In fact the secret was this almost mechanical technique which allowed me to commit huge amounts of text to memory. If what you want to memorize is long the process can be a grind and tests your commitment to the project. But for shorter works it is amazingly quick and easy.
Step One: Read the poem to yourself (not outloud)
Step Two: Now read only the first line of the poem outloud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately, outloud, say the line again. Glance quickly to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, do it over. Now move on to the second line and repeat the procedure- one outloud reading followed by one outloud recitation of the line from memory. Do this for every line in the poem (in order, I guess it goes without saying).
Step Three: Once you have completed going through the poem, go back to the beginning. This time read outloud the first two lines, look away and repeat them outloud. Check briefly that you got it right. If you make a mistake do it over. Now move on to the next two lines and so forth going through the poem two lines at a time.
Steps Four thru Seven: Repeat the process three lines at a time, then 4 lines at a time, then 5 and then 6. I have found that by the 6th pass, no matter how long or short the poem, you will have the whole thing committed to memory. At some point in this process you will find that you are able to recite the whole poem without hardly a glance at the poem. I recommend doing all six passes even if you already seem to have the poem down before then.
Step Eight: Recite the whole poem, preferably just before you go to bed at night.
Step Nine (IMPORTANT): Stop thinking about the poem and just sleep on it. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory- it sort of saves to your brains harddrive what has been floating around in its RAM while it worked through the poem.
The next day you should find (perhaps with a little glance at the first line of the poem to kidkstart your memory) that you can recite the whole poem. Now recite the poem once more, to yourself with meaning! Depending on when you want to perform the poem you may want to recite it once a day or every couple of days before your performance. You have mechanically memorized the text, now is your opportunity to explore the poem and all its hidden meanings and connections without needing the text in front of you.
Note: This memory may fade over time, if you do not give it a run through every so often. I couldn't recite "Howl' straight through now if you asked me to. Give me a day or two.