Memorizing Poetry

by Matthew Koslowski on November 25, 2009
in Essays

In This Essay

Complete Poems of John Keats
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Speaking of Faith: Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education

In college I resolved to memorize Paradise Lost.

Not just “The Invocation to the Muse,” the first twenty-six lines. The entire work. All twelve books.

My inspiration came in part from watching The Crow. One of the villains, T-Bird, picks up a book and reads, “Abashed the Devil stood and felt how awful goodness is, and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely…” Wondering if he were reading from a real book, I searched Google and found that quote comes from Book IV of Paradise Lost.

I developed a plan, in fact, to memorize the poem. After letting this grandiose idea overtake me, I sat down with a copy of the poem and determined how many lines were in each book. Then adding them up, I figured how long it would commit to memory if I memorized a fixed number — I believe it was ten lines — per day. It was a project that was going to take years of dedicated work.

Expanded Minds

The desire to stretch my mind to the task originated in stories that I had encountered throughout high school and college. Stories of incredible acts of memorization.

  • The rhapsodes who had the entire epics of Homer committed to memory;
  • Some Jewish scholars who so loved the Torah that they memorized not just the entire Torah but the very ways the scrolls rolled so that if someone were to stick a pin through the Torah, the scholar would know which words were pierced;
  • Though I’ve not read it, the ending of Fahrenheit 451 in which people are circling a fire reciting the great works of literature from memory.

The story of the Jewish scholars so inspired me that I wanted to memorize book and line numbers of Paradise Lost to the point that if someone said, “What was the fifteenth line of Book X?” I would have been able to recite it without referring to the text.


I began thinking about all this again for three reasons:

  • first, I just finished memorizing the entirety of “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats;
  • second, amid memorizing “Ode to a Nightingale,” I listened to “Learning, Doing, Being,” on Speaking of Faith;
  • and, finally, because I watched The Crow again last night.

I did memorize the Milton’s “Invocation to the Muse.” I did not continue with the project past that.

The exercise of memorizing “The Invocation to the Muse” as well as thinking of the entire poem was helpful in memorizing “Ode to a Nightingale.” Four years out of college, I can still recite the “Invocation to the Muse,” albeit a little rough in a few places now because I rarely practice. I believe that four years from now, I will still be able to recite “Ode to a Nightingale.” Moreover, I hope that these will be but two of the poems I am able to recite.

Why Memorize Poems?

Memorizing poems is fun.

Before you doubt that is true, think of the number of songs you have memorized. If you listen to your favorite radio station, or increasingly your Pandora station, how many would you be able to sing? And of those who many could you recite the lyrics without the music?

There is no greater tribute to a poet or lyricist than to memorize his or her works.

Throughout human history, we have memorized songs and poems. This is a natural part of intellectual play and has long been instrumental in learning. Adele Diamond, the interviewee for “Learning, Doing, Being,” is a neuroscientist who thinks that we need to look back to the traditions if we want to think of ways to improve education. To support reintroducing memorization and other practices, she uses an argument pulled from evolutionary psychology: if memorizing poetry was of no value, our ancestors would have stopped doing it.

Memorizing a poem is an exercise not only of memory but of commitment. Although I broke my commitment to Paradise Lost — and who wouldn’t be daunted by the task? — I have kept my commitment to John Keats. And I intend to make similar commitments to other great poets.

Truly committing something to memory cannot be done in one sitting. Memorization is not an act of passing fancy. Requiring our children to memorize poems and stories helps them learn patience.

Pillars of the Temple of Thought

We naturally memorize works of art that are either fun or meaningful to us.

Above I asked you to think of how many songs you’ve memorized without putting in effort. Now think of from how many scenes from movies, or even whole films, you’ve memorized the dialogue. How many quotes have you committed to memory?

I believe that memorizing poetry changes our very minds. We know from neuroscience that the more we think about certain things the stronger the connections to those neurons grow. I know that things in my life have grown to seem to touch everything. This perception may reflect the reality of my neurons.

If this holds true, then memorizing poems will change the way that we think of those things discussed in the imagery and theme of poem. I know that when I first encountered “Separation” by W.S. Merwin, it completely changed the way that I think of loss and I committed the poem to memory because of its power.

We live in an age where everything is vying for our attention if even for moments. More than that, many of the advertisements are looking to change our minds, change the way we think. But the act of memorizing a poem takes time and deliberate, sustained attention. I believe that memorizing poetry counteracts the adverse effects of the beeping and squawking, all the noise that is clamoring for us.

By committing poetry to memory, you are controlling what ideals and images constitute the pillars in the temple of your thought. If you don’t decide what you want to think, the marketers are going to do it for you.


5 Responses to “Memorizing Poetry”
  1. Mike Sullivan says:

    One of the top two ways to honor a writer is to pay her for her work.

    –Via Facebook.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    I certainly agree, Mike. In fairness, though, both Keats and Milton are long dead. And, as I understand it, both their works are in the public domain.

    And a way to honor me is to buy the books, if they interest you, that I write about here. I get a commission for every purchase you make from after clicking on one of my links. In fact, you need not buy one of the books I recommend. Just click on one of the links before you begin shopping at and I’ll get credit for whatever you buy.

  2. Aaron Palmore says:

    I have committed a fair number of “poems” or parts of “poems” to memory. To me, the most important aspect of memorization is that it gives you the opportunity to think about a work you appreciate without the written word in front of you. I’m glad I spent the hour or so several years ago, for instance, to memorize Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “To a Young Child,” since as a result I can think about it as I’m walking down the street, about to fall asleep, or writing replies to people’s Facebook statuses.

    I think that I see things slightly differently from what you wrote in your post. This is a little bit latent in what you wrote, but it seems to me that you wax reminiscent about some golden age of memorization and lament that minds of today seem incapable or unwilling to do put themselves to the task. In the same post, though, you admit that anyone today can probably recite the words of their favorite songs to you. My question, I guess, is how are these so different? Some might scoff at grouping the Iliad and a Britney Spears song together, but the fact is that they are both essentially artistic memes that represent aspects of a specific subculture.

    Certainly, one has stood the test of time, and the other is recent enough that it hasn’t had to do so. Did I not, though, exercise the same parts of my brain when I memorized the first couple dozen lines of the Aeneid as when I memorized all of the words to the Smashing Pumpkins’ album Siamese Dream? I guess you could argue that, in the modern world, one is (mostly) visual and one is (mostly) auditory, but ancient poetry was largely an auditory experience as well. So what exactly is this height from which we have fallen, unless one would blame the art itself or the medium?

    Also, just to let you know that there is at least one (usually) silent fan of your blog out there, I read all of these as you post them.

    –Via Facebook

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    Perhaps I failed to express my meaning, Aaron.

    This was not meant quite as an elegy on the loss of some perfect world of yesteryear. Any references to the amazing memories of ancient peoples was to demonstrate that people have done this throughout time. Without radio, television, and the Internet, committing things to memory as a pass time had more appeal.

    Nor was my intention to disparage, to pass a judgment of the value of “high art” versus “low art.” I have many songs by The Deftones, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, A Perfect Circle, and The Cure committed to memory.

    Under the heading “Why Memorize Poems?” I cited memorizing your favorite lyrics as an activity in which we naturally engage that is comparable to memorizing poetry. I cited this example intending that we already engage in memorization for pleasure and that memorizing poetry is not that alien to what we often do for fun. I would say that memorizing a poem does require more effort because you do have to convert the written text to sound.

    Though I am no neuroscientist, I would hypothesize that we use similar if not the same regions of our brains when memorizing poetry. Though I do remember once hearing that memorizing songs and hymns does engage different systems of the brain that are not degraded in some cognitive degradation and impairment. Although the person was suffering from severe cognitive impairment – I want to say Alzheimer’s but I cannot recall with certainty nor quickly find it on Google – he was still able to recall hymns from his youth. If he were still able to recite poetry he learned around the age he learned the hymns, we would have empirical evidence that they engage the same structures.

    I find it funny as an aside that you mention Britney Spears in particular. In one episode of Doctor Who, some aliens play “Toxic” by Britney Spears as an example of the high art of Earth’s Classical period. While I would not personally find it fulfilling to commit her lyrics to memory, I do not wish to discourage people from doing so themselves.

    Perhaps I should expand upon this in another post: my argument at the end was that in memorizing poetry we can choose the themes of the poems, songs, and quotations that we memorize. In so doing, I believe we can structure our thoughts. In learning to talk the talk through these memorizations, once the words become a part not only of the neurological structure of your brain but of your Self, you will naturally begin to walk the walk. If you want to live a Stoic life, you would commit quotations from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca the Younger to memory. If you want to live a rock and roll life, you’d memorize rock and roll songs and quotes from your favorite rockers.

    I have written about recognizing yourself in literature and using it to discover yourself at length.

    What I have not much written about is using literature to create yourself. But I did touch upon it once in “Living through Literature.” I still believe it. If you carefully choose the poems that you commit to memory, you are choosing the person that you will become over the next few years. If you carefully choose the songs that you commit to memory, you are also choosing the person that you will become over the next few years.

    When I wrote, “If you don’t decide what you want to think, the marketers are going to do it for you,” I meant that I believe the songs and advertisements on the radio have that great an impact on not only our sense of self but also who we become. Songs, our own personal histories, passages from plays, passages from films, passages from novels, poems, from all of these things we cobble a self.

    Though I failed at it, my essay was intended to say, “In choosing what you memorize, you choose who you become.”

  3. Jessi says:

    Thanks for posting this! I particularly appreciate the point you just elaborated on in your comment–that choosing what we fill our minds with helps shape who we are becoming. Are we going to listen passively or will we intentionally seek out poems/songs/quotes/etc to focus on?