It’s National Poem in your Pocket Day. For over a decade, the Academy of American Poets has been encouraging all of us to carry a poem in our pockets on April 30 and share it with people we meet, in honor of the last day of National Poetry Month. And to make it easier, the AAP has even helpfully provided a downloadable group of poems in your pocket suitable for pocketing.
Looking at this wonderful group of poems (though I do wish it included something by that most memorizable of poets, Langston Hughes), I realized that I already know several of them by heart–and that gave me an idea. Rather than carrying a poet in your pocket, what about carrying one in your heart, your ear, and your mouth? Memorizing a poem does the pocket idea one better: it weaves the poem into each day of the rest of your life. It will become part of you, a gift you can share with yourself or others anytime you want to, whether or not you have pockets.
Both my parents came from families where memorized poems were shared, and when I was growing up they would often recite lines that came into their minds, sometimes prefaced by a familiar story: “oh, I remember how your Great-Aunt Jessie used to recite this poem!” I learned my first really long poem, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” one summer at the suggestion of a boyfriend. I was in the woods with no telephone, and we agreed we would each recite it before we went to sleep every night. The poem, like most of the ones I’ve ever memorized, has enriched my life ever since.
When I teach a new group of poets, I often ask who knows some poetry by heart, and it turns out that many of them do. If you’re like most people, even if you have never memorized a poem, you can recite a few lines of a children’s poem, an advertising jingle, or maybe some song lyrics that sound like poetry when recited. So you know you can do it. Setting out to memorize a poem on purpose just makes the process more intentional.
Here are my top tips for memorizing a poem:
1. Choose a poem that will feed you, one you truly love. Since memorized words become, in a sense, a part of your personality and your life, by committing certain poems to memory you can consciously choose to shape yourself and your life in certain directions.
2. Consider a poem that has strong rhythm or uses meter and rhyme. These ancient poetic tools were developed in part to help with memorization, and they work. For poems in a wide range of different rhythms, you may want to check out my anthology Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, just published this month.
3. Write or print out a copy. This way, you can keep the poem near you, and every time you see it you will be reminded to practice. You can put your copy on the bathroom sink while you brush your teeth, next to you at the dinner table, in the car for a quick glance when stopped at a red light, and yes, nestled in your pocket while you walk.
4. Start at the beginning. Memorize the first line first and keep adding onto it, line by line. Gradually increase the amount you can recite until you get to the end. Each time you recite, start at the beginning. This helps your confidence and strengthens the effect each time you run through the poem.
5. Recite the poem frequently and stop to take a look at it as soon as you get confused, so you can catch any mistakes right away before they get ingrained.
6. Try using your body for help. Break the poem into sections, and associate each section with a gesture, change of posture or position, or other physical movement. That way, your body will do the remembering for you.
7. Consider working with buddies. As I found with “Ode to a Nightingale,” you may find it easier to memorize if you do it with other people. You could support each other and share notes, or challenge and compete with each other.
The more you memorize, the easier it is to do, at any stage of life. Your brain gets used to it and better at it, and you’ll find that you become more confident. Before you know it, you may find you have a whole library of favorite poems in your mind and your body—and every month will be National Poetry Month.