The purpose of rhythm and rhyme is in part to make poetry memorable. We use the phrase “learning by heart”, which is appropriate: if we really appreciate a piece of poetry – feeling it, understanding it and hearing its music. We are more likely to be word-perfect when we try to recite the verse either to ourselves or to others. But sadly, learning by heart is something few of us have the leisure for.

In this post I am going to show you how the Journey Method is an effective aid to memorizing poetry. When choosing the journey with which I will memorize a poem, open spaces often make the best locations. This is because I create several key images for each stage of my journey, and outdoor, uncluttered locations allow me to spread out my images.

memorize poetry

The idea is to convert certain words from each line into key images that can be linked together and then mentally “placed” along each stage of the journey.

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The following exercise lets you try this technique for yourself. At every stop along your journey ensure that you make an association between the location and the first word of the line of the poem, plus the actual subject of the line that you are trying to commit to memory. This is a tricky exercise, and depending on the complexity of the particular line, you may sometimes require several key images to remind you of the whole line, word for word. But don’t panic, I’ll start you off.

Exercise: Memorizing Lines of Poetry

Read through the following 14 lines of poetry – a sonnet – and choose a 14-stage journey with a location relevant to the poem.

ODE TO THE WEST WIND BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being, (9)
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead (8)
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, (8)
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, (8)
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, (5)
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed (7)
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low, (9)
Each like a corpse within its grave, until (8)
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow (8)
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill (8)
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) (9)
With living hues and odours plain and hill: (8)
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; (6)
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear! (6)
Total number of words (107)

2. Allow yourself 15 minutes to memorize as many words as you can from the first 14 lines of the poem.

3. At the start of your journey picture a large ring or hoop in front of you. This will serve as a reliable cue for “O”, the first word of the first line. To remind you of the line itself, choose a key image or scene which you think best represents it – a Wild West cowboy and a gust of Fall wind perhaps? Fuse the key images together and place them at the first stage of your journey. So, my starting position is the entrance to an autumnal woodland park where I picture a large hoop, which I step through to see a Wild West cowboy being blown into the sky by a gust of wind.

4. At the second stage, form the next line prompter. What do you associate with the word “Thou”? Perhaps the word makes you think of a “Holier than Thou” preacher? Picture an image of a preacher crunching Fall leaves underfoot to remind you of the content of the second line of the poem.

5. At the third stage, you might choose to use the Alphabet System to remind you of the next line prompter “Are”. Picture Romeo from Romeo and Juliet driving a car – he is chasing a cluster of ghosts, who are running away from a wizard (“enchanter”). And so on. Once you have memorized all 14 lines, see how many you can recall in your notebook.

Score Add up the number of words you recalled correctly. Score one point for each word.