Memory Palace

The tutors at my school are going to curse me to hell. I’m requiring my 8th grade English class to memorize eleven poems this term: three Shakespearean Sonnets, a sonnet by John Milton (When I consider how my light is spent), John Keats (first looking into Chapman’s Homer), William Blake (London), Wordsworth (Westminster Bridge), Shelley (Ozymandias), Kipling (Arithmetic on the frontier), Wilfred Owen (Sonnet on heavy artillery, and Yeats (Innisfree). My department chair feels that it’s not within my mandate as a writing teacher; I feel that if a student has some poetry memorized, that there is some basis for writing poetry, and for building a framework for other writing, as well. A lot of kids are having difficulty with the memorizing, though. Many of you are poets who memorize your work for performance. Do you have any tips to share about memorizing work, and building up the palace of memory that allows you to insert new poems in amongst the ones you already know? How do you make sure you do not forget the poems you already memorized?

40 comments

    • Actually, kids are having the opposite reaction. Of the 13 in the class, nine have commented that it makes them feel good to memorize.

  1. Good idea…but only dead white guys? What about Emily Dickinson, for one, sung to the Gilligan’s Isle theme song. They’ll have it memorized instantly! O.k., scratch the singing. But where’s the babes of poetry???

  2. Good idea…but only dead white guys? What about Emily Dickinson, for one, sung to the Gilligan’s Isle theme song. They’ll have it memorized instantly! O.k., scratch the singing. But where’s the babes of poetry???

      • Re: Suggestion?

        Here’s six…

        Dorothy Parker – “One Perfect Rose”

        Edith Warton –

        “Wants”

        We women want to many things;
        And first we call for happiness, —
        The careless boon the hour brings,
        The smile, the song, and the caress.

        And when the fancy fades, we cry,
        Nay, give us one on whom to spend
        Our heart’s desire! When Love goes by
        With folded wings, we seek a friend.

        And then our children come, to prove
        Our hearts but slumbered, and can wake;
        And when they go, we’re fain to love
        Some other woman’s for their sake.

        But when both love and friendship fail,
        We cry for duty, work to do;
        Some end to gain beyond the pale
        Of self, some height to journey to.

        And then, before our task is done,
        With sudden weariness oppressed,
        We leave the shining goal unwon
        And only ask for rest.

        Emily Dickinson – “The Snake”

        Anne Sexton – “Old”

        Sylvia Plath –

        “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

        “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
        The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
        The grasses unload their griefs at my feet as if I
        were God,
        Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
        Fumy spiritious mists inhabit this place
        Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
        I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

        The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
        White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
        It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is
        quiet
        With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
        Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky –
        Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
        At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

        The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
        The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
        The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
        Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
        How I would like to believe in tenderness –
        The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
        Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

        I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
        Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
        Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
        Floating on their delicate feet over cold pews,
        Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
        The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
        And the message of the yew tree is blackness –
        blackness and silence.

        Edna St. Vincent Millay –

        “The Little Ghost”

        I knew her for a little ghost
        That in my garden walked;
        The wall is high — higher than most —
        And the green gate was locked.

        And yet I did not think of that
        Till after she was gone —
        I knew her by the broad white hat,
        All ruffled, she had on.

        By the dear ruffles round her feet,
        By her small hands that hung
        In their lace mitts, austere and sweet,
        Her gown’s white folds among.

        I watched to see if she would stay,
        What she would do — and oh!
        She looked as if she liked the way
        I let my garden grow!

        She bent above my favourite mint
        With conscious garden grace,
        She smiled and smiled — there was no hint
        Of sadness in her face.

        She held her gown on either side
        To let her slippers show,
        And up the walk she went with pride,
        The way great ladies go.

        And where the wall is built in new
        And is of ivy bare
        She paused — then opened and passed through
        A gate that once was there.

        “Witch-Wife”

        She is neither pink nor pale,
        And she never will be all mine;
        She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
        And her mouth on a valentine.

        She has more hair than she needs;
        In the sun ’tis a woe to me!
        And her voice is a string of colored beads,
        Or steps leading into the sea.

        She loves me all that she can,
        And her ways to my ways resign;
        But she was not made for any man,
        And she never will be all mine.

  3. They can thank him when they’re grown-up CEOs who can give an informative, confident presentation without reading off their powerpoint slides.

    True nuff.

  4. i think it’s a brilliant plan.

    the best luck i’ve had with memorizing poems comes in two ways, one more unwieldly than the other, but works better:

    less unwieldly – start at the bottom. this is one that i learned from my 11th grade German language teacher (who had the kids she couldn’t cope with memorize poems for competition instead of the more prestigious boning up for conversation competition at FL Students of German convention). you begin by memorizing the last line, then adding the lines above it as get the end lines down. it totally works.

    unwieldly, ungainly even – music. writing music for a poem always makes me memorize the poem deep & fast.

    ooh! also – incorporating movement into the memorization works SOOOOO well – the body cues the mouth for the next line.

  5. i think it’s a brilliant plan.

    the best luck i’ve had with memorizing poems comes in two ways, one more unwieldly than the other, but works better:

    less unwieldly – start at the bottom. this is one that i learned from my 11th grade German language teacher (who had the kids she couldn’t cope with memorize poems for competition instead of the more prestigious boning up for conversation competition at FL Students of German convention). you begin by memorizing the last line, then adding the lines above it as get the end lines down. it totally works.

    unwieldly, ungainly even – music. writing music for a poem always makes me memorize the poem deep & fast.

    ooh! also – incorporating movement into the memorization works SOOOOO well – the body cues the mouth for the next line.

  6. I expect he’s assigning it so the students internalize the pieces, rather than for its own sake. If they’re reciting it, it will make them experience it as something heard rather than something skimmed on a page. There’s probably a specific reason behind each poem.

    Besides, memorization is a good skill. They can thank him when they’re grown-up CEOs who can give an informative, confident presentation without reading off their powerpoint slides.

  7. When I did community theater, I was given a tip for memorizing lines.

    Read the first line, 3 times (actually READ each word, not skim over it).
    Now say the line without looking at the words.
    Check what you said with what is written. Correct, move on, incorrect, start over.
    Move on to next line. Read it 3 times, say it once, then say both 1st and 2nd line. Continue.

    I found this really helped me, including those long soliloquies.

    Nigel had to memorize some Shakespeare. He recorded it onto a cd (his own voice) and listened to it each night as he was going to bed. He said it worked for him.

  8. When I did community theater, I was given a tip for memorizing lines.

    Read the first line, 3 times (actually READ each word, not skim over it).
    Now say the line without looking at the words.
    Check what you said with what is written. Correct, move on, incorrect, start over.
    Move on to next line. Read it 3 times, say it once, then say both 1st and 2nd line. Continue.

    I found this really helped me, including those long soliloquies.

    Nigel had to memorize some Shakespeare. He recorded it onto a cd (his own voice) and listened to it each night as he was going to bed. He said it worked for him.

  9. While I understand that memorization can make a piece more “yours” — and it has its place for facility of performance / presentation — I generally frown on memorization for its own sake. I’d rather be an index than a compendium.

  10. While I understand that memorization can make a piece more “yours” — and it has its place for facility of performance / presentation — I generally frown on memorization for its own sake. I’d rather be an index than a compendium.

    • I expect he’s assigning it so the students internalize the pieces, rather than for its own sake. If they’re reciting it, it will make them experience it as something heard rather than something skimmed on a page. There’s probably a specific reason behind each poem.

      Besides, memorization is a good skill. They can thank him when they’re grown-up CEOs who can give an informative, confident presentation without reading off their powerpoint slides.

      • They can thank him when they’re grown-up CEOs who can give an informative, confident presentation without reading off their powerpoint slides.

        True nuff.

  11. Sing it.

    Put them to music and sing them to yourself.

    This works for everything, incidentally. Some BS about using more parts of your brain to write the new data into long term memory, or whatever, but it works wonders.

    You haven’t lived until you have sung the full anatomical names of muscles of the upper extermity to the tune of Amazing Grace a few times through. With feeling.

    Pectoralis Major,
    Latissimus Dorsi,
    Levator Scapulae!
    Pectoralis Minor,
    Trapezius,
    Serratus Anterior….

    There is a reason that songs are so memorable. Abuse that. You don’t have to sing well, just carry the tune enough to set the words in your head. It never fails.

  12. Sing it.

    Put them to music and sing them to yourself.

    This works for everything, incidentally. Some BS about using more parts of your brain to write the new data into long term memory, or whatever, but it works wonders.

    You haven’t lived until you have sung the full anatomical names of muscles of the upper extermity to the tune of Amazing Grace a few times through. With feeling.

    Pectoralis Major,
    Latissimus Dorsi,
    Levator Scapulae!
    Pectoralis Minor,
    Trapezius,
    Serratus Anterior….

    There is a reason that songs are so memorable. Abuse that. You don’t have to sing well, just carry the tune enough to set the words in your head. It never fails.

    • I have a mental block when it comes to actors names, especially, for some reason — Gene Hackman.

      The only way I can remember his name is by thinking of the Robyn Hitchcock song “Don’t talk to me about Gene Hackman.”

      You’ll see me singing it softly to myself whenever someone mentions The French Connection 🙂

  13. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!

    When I learn a fiddle tune by ear, I listen to it over and over until I can sing it. In the first stage I just listen until it becomes familiar. As soon as possible, I try to sing along. It’s somewhat passive. The second stage is try, then correct, a chunk at a time. This is more active; it’s like Pimsleur tape exercises when they say “How do you say _____? (pause) _______.”

    In the third stage I know the song pretty well and occasionally check it against the original. I’ll often have slipped up on a couple notes.

    The process repeats when I actually play.

    Once I know the notes for a song, I think about phrasing and how the whole thing hangs together. This keeps it from being a mechanical recitation. You poets know more about bringing words to life than I do, so I won’t suggest specifics.

    To retain songs I review them periodically. I think well in sounds; I can often hear the original recording in my mind once I’ve been reminded how it goes.

    How many commercials and pop songs do your 8th graders know by heart? Betcha more than 11. They can do this.

    If you made a class project of recording one poem for them to work with, maybe you could cover how to bring it to life at the same time. You probably address questions like “what’s this verse about? what’s the author saying? what’s the mood?”, and all the other things that breathe life and music into the printed word.

    I can’t wait to steal you poets’ suggestions to apply to music.

  14. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!

    When I learn a fiddle tune by ear, I listen to it over and over until I can sing it. In the first stage I just listen until it becomes familiar. As soon as possible, I try to sing along. It’s somewhat passive. The second stage is try, then correct, a chunk at a time. This is more active; it’s like Pimsleur tape exercises when they say “How do you say _____? (pause) _______.”

    In the third stage I know the song pretty well and occasionally check it against the original. I’ll often have slipped up on a couple notes.

    The process repeats when I actually play.

    Once I know the notes for a song, I think about phrasing and how the whole thing hangs together. This keeps it from being a mechanical recitation. You poets know more about bringing words to life than I do, so I won’t suggest specifics.

    To retain songs I review them periodically. I think well in sounds; I can often hear the original recording in my mind once I’ve been reminded how it goes.

    How many commercials and pop songs do your 8th graders know by heart? Betcha more than 11. They can do this.

    If you made a class project of recording one poem for them to work with, maybe you could cover how to bring it to life at the same time. You probably address questions like “what’s this verse about? what’s the author saying? what’s the mood?”, and all the other things that breathe life and music into the printed word.

    I can’t wait to steal you poets’ suggestions to apply to music.

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