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How to Memorize a Poem

by Jough Dempsey

9 February 2004

Whether you have to memorize a poem for an English class, a friend’s wedding, or you just want to truly know a poem for your own edification, having to memorize lines can be intimidating and seem an impossible task at first. Have no fear! This guide will teach you how to memorize a poem effectively and easily.

Tips for Memorizing Poems

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Memorization sounds difficult, but it’s not really. It mostly takes a bit of time and repetition, and you’ll find that your ability to memorize new lines improves with practice. To help speed you on your way to spouting forth lines of verse everywhere you go, here are some tips for how to memorize a poem quickly and accurately. This one goes to eleven.

  1. Choose wisely

    Since you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your poem, you may as well pick a poem you like to read and re-read.

  2. Print a copy

    Type up your poem (or print out a copy of the poem from this site - some suggestions appear in our Poems for Memorization, Recitation, and Forensics Meets Guided Poetry Tour) and carry it with you. When you get a moment, read over your poem.

  3. Read the poem. Then read it again.

    You should read the entire poem through a few times to get a feel for it as a whole. Then read it again.

  4. Read the poem aloud.

    It’s important to hear how the poem sounds. Even if you’re not memorizing so as to recite the poem out loud later, you’ll learn the poem better (and faster) if you can hear it while you’re reading it.

  5. Look closely.

    Read the poem again and think about every word: what it means, what it sounds like, how it fits into the poem as a whole. Understanding the essence of your poem, picturing every image, and imagining every item and action in the poem will also help you learn it. When you visualize your poem you’re also adding another sense to the mix. The more senses you can employ the easier it will be to memorize your poem.

  6. Make a recording.

    If you want to memorize while driving or jogging you could also record yourself reading the poem and then play it back when you otherwise can’t read.

  7. Break it up into sections.

    Using the copy you printed, put a mark every 4-5 lines (or every stanza if the poem is broken into lines separated by a blank line). Re-read just those few lines over a few times, slowly, and then put the paper down and try to recite the first line, then the second, and so on. You may need to go back to your paper and re-read again. After you’ve learned one section, move on to the next. Once you’re able to recite the second section, practice reciting both the first and second sections together, and then move on to the third, and so on.

  8. Take a break.

    Once you feel confident that you can recite each section, take a break and do something else. You may forget a little now, but you’ll remember more of the poem in the long term if you don’t cram. Give the poem a chance to sink deeper into your long term memory.

  9. Use training wheels.

    When you first learned how to ride a bicycle you may have used training wheels to keep you from toppling over. Consider that sheet you’ve been carrying around your training wheels or a crutch. When reciting the poem again after a day or two you may forget a bit of a line, or you may get stuck transitioning from one section to another. Don’t panic! You can always glance back down to your crib sheet to get you back on track again until you no longer need it.

  10. Enlist a stage hand.

    Sometimes it may help to give the page to someone else and then try to recite the entire poem, letting them prompt you with a few words to jog your memory when you get stuck. Reciting the poem to another person will also help you get practice reciting poems in front of others (which is beneficial if you’re memorizing a poem to recite in front of a class or at a forensics meet).

  11. Keep reciting the poem to yourself.

    Once you know the poem fairly well you should be able to recite it to yourself whenever you have a spare moment alone - in the shower, while cooking breakfast, waiting your turn at the checkout, etc. Sometimes it helps to recite the poem a few times to yourself just before you go to sleep instead of counting sheep, as people tend to remember what they read just before going to sleep. It’s a scientific fact.

Once you’ve memorized your first poem, learning subsequent poems will be easier, and after you’ve memorized a bunch of poems you’ll have a whole repertoire at your disposal. You could perform at weddings, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs…

For tips on reciting poetry and a guide to poems suitable for memorization and recitation, see these related articles:


About the Author

Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Poetry X, an online poetry resource for learning how to memorize a poem. In his spare time he enjoys mumbling lines of poetry.

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