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A Memorized Poem 'Lives With You Forever,' So Pick Carefully

Jan 19, 2013
Originally published on January 28, 2013 5:39 pm

Take just a moment to estimate how many songs you know by heart. Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?

Now, how many poems do you have memorized?

For most modern readers, even poetry fans, that number's pretty low. But Poetry By Heart, a new competition in the U.K., is seeking to bring the art of poetry memorization to a new generation.

On Weekend Edition Saturday, poet Jean Sprackland — who helped assemble the list of 130 poems eligible for Poetry By Heart — spoke to NPR's Scott Simon about the joys of memorization. As it turns out, both Sprackland and Simon still remember texts they learned years ago: for Sprackland, it's John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale"; for Simon, it's Macbeth's last soliloquy.

Sprackland says that a poem known by heart becomes a part of you, and "it's something that lives with you forever." For some, that might stay true even if you lose a few of the words: In 2005, linguist Geoff Nunberg commented on Fresh Air that he still feels like he "owns" poems that he can't perfectly recite. But if a memorized poem stays with you forever, then learning a text comes with some pressure. Let's say you want to up the number of poems you know by heart. How do you choose which works to carry with you for the rest of your life?

Some poems, marked by regular rhymes and rhythms, are simply easier to memorize. After all, the predictable patterns of verse are the reason poems are usually easier to learn by heart than prose. But it's not all about picking the easiest poem to learn; you'll want one with emotional impact, rich imagery and enough shades of meaning that it's worth returning to again and again. And then there's always the question of fame: While an obscure text might be of great personal significance, learning a poem that's more famous can make for a pretty good party trick.

The 10 poems below, selected from the 130 in the Poetry By Heart anthology, are particularly rewarding to memorize. But while this list is a good place to start, ultimately the decision is entirely personal. When a poem hits you right in the gut, you'll know it's time to start memorizing.

Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats

Jean Sprackland told NPR's Scott Simon that even before she knew what they meant, she loved how Keats' words "tasted and felt."

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!

Paradise Lost, Book 1, 242-270, John Milton

Satan's response to his expulsion from heaven, in its fury and arrogance, is recognizably more human than demonic.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This famously drug-fueled dreamscape manages to be simultaneously haunting and energetic.

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

Easy to memorize and fun to recite, this classic sonnet is great to have on hand as a rejoinder to the overconfident.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold

In a poem perfect for today's apocalypse-obsessed, Arnold mixes despair and last-ditch hope.

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

Invitation to Love, Paul Dunbar

Dunbar's love poem shines with sincerity, and features repetition that translates well to speech and memory.

Come to my heart and bring it to rest

The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

This classic reads like a horror story, but there's a powerful moral judgment behind the bloody monsters.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

The Fish, Elizabeth Bishop

Deceptively simple, this description of a catch builds toward a euphoric release.

And everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

Sea Canes, Derek Walcott

Once memorized, this brief, lovely elegy becomes a constantly accessible comfort for the mourning.

but out of what is lost grows something stronger

Ö, Rita Dove

From a single word of Swedish, Dove builds a meditation on change and the power of language.

You start out with one thing, end
up with another

What works would you recommend to someone looking for the perfect poem to memorize?

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