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A Year of Living Poetically

A long time ago, memorizing poetry was par for the course in school. Communities had poetry recitation contests, and poetry was frequently printed in the newspapers.

Now, it is unusual if a student is asked to memorize anything beyond the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. But if you allow it to, the memorization of poetry can enrich your life, expanding your mind and bringing beauty to even your darkest days. If you remain unconvinced, please read the following:

Memorizing poetry turns on kids’ language capability. It not only teaches them to articulate English words; it heightens their feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language — an indispensable attainment if they are to go on to speak, write, and read English with ease. Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, argues that memorization builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax. The student who memorizes poetry will internalize the rhythmic, beautiful patterns of the English language. These patterns then become part of the student’s language store, those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking. Without memorization, the student’s language store, Bauer says, will be limited: memorization stocks the language store with a whole new set of language patterns.

It also stocks those bins with a generous supply of the English language’s rich accumulation of words. Research suggests that the size of a child’s vocabulary plays an important part in determining the quality of his language-comprehension skills. The greater and wider the vocabulary, says education historian Ravitch, the greater one’s comprehension of increasingly difficult material. Bauer points out that if a student reads a word in a novel, she might or might not remember it for later use. But when she commits it to memory in proper context (as the memorization of lines of poetry requires), she is much more likely to have it at her mental fingertips for use in her own speaking and writing.

Michael Knox Beran, In Defense of Memorization

So, the benefits of memorizing poetry are varied and deep. It’s free, uncomplicated, and has lasting, powerful benefits. This plan includes twelve poems. If you memorize just one a month, in one year you will have twelve powerful poems that will be yours forever.

Memorization List

  1. “No Man is an Island” by John Donne
  2. “Sonnet 116” by William Shakespeare
  3. “The Road not Taken” by Robert Frost
  4. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
  5. “Death be not Proud” by John Donne
  6. “Sonnet” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  7. “The Man in the Arena: Citizenship in a Republic” by Teddy Roosevelt
  8. “Richard Cory” by Edward Arlington Robinson
  9. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson
  10. “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  11. “The Cloths of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats
  12. “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

How to memorize a poem in a few simple steps (really)

  1. Read through the poem carefully and slowly and out loud. It’s okay if you don’t get it all right away. Just read it, letting the language flow out of your mouth.
  2. Copy the poem over in your own handwriting, writing on every other line. Try to keep the lines and stanzas on your paper the same as in the original poem.
  3. Read the poem out loud again.
  4. Using an index card or a piece of paper, cover up all of the poem except the first line. Say that line over to yourself three times. Now, gaze off into space for a moment and try to say the line from memory.
  5. Repeat this with the rest of the lines in the stanza, saying the lines you have already worked on, too. If the poem is not divided into stanzas, divide it yourself into groups of three or four lines.
  6. Once you have one stanza down, go to the next one, again working line by line.
  7. Put those two stanzas together, and then move on. Repeat this until you reach the end of the poem.
  8. You will think you have it down pat, and you will be wrong. It will take practice to move this information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. To practice, follow the ideas below:
    • write the first letter of each word on an index card and practice with the card, using the letters to prompt you
    • record yourself reading the poem and listen to it (if you can load it on an iPod or MP3 player, that is awesome practice)
    • say the poem out loud when you are walking by yourself
    • recite to your parents (serious brownie points)
    • say it while you are in the shower, drying your hair, or exercising (repetitive motion like a foot striking the track will help get the pattern of the poem in your mind)
    • write it out over and over
    • think it to yourself when you are bored in class

Using these simple steps and techniques, you will be able to learn the poem without too much difficulty. You already know the lyrics to about a bazillion songs. All songs are is poetry. You can do it. Take the time to practice it. Really try to learn it.

This plan contains suggested poems for memorization, along with an explanation of the poem, study helps and review sheets. It also contains suggestions for further memorization and resources to develop your relationship with poetry. The poems do not need to be memorized in any particular order.

Additional Poetry Resources


Web Resources

General Poetry Resources:

Poetry Recitation Competition

Poetry for Schools: This site has poems specifically selected by Poet Laureate Billy Collins to be used in schools. The “180” in the title stands for the 180-day school year.