Memorising Poetry

No-one knows when poetry as an art-form began; one of the earliest poems we still have a copy of is The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, written around 6 and a half millennia ago in the Egyptian empire, but there were definitely many more before that. One of the reasons why the origins of poetry are so obscure is that poetry pre-dates history, and therefore it pre-dates literacy. Well, this is all very well and a lovely history lecture, but what does this have to do with your exams? I’ll move swiftly to the point. Poetry pre-dates any forms of literacy, this meant that it couldn’t be written down but had to be remembered. Did you ever wonder why prose is so different to poetry? History and song, before writing systems were invented, needed a different way to carry information from generation to generation – they had no books, and definitely no libraries. This was done by making the information easy to remember and easy to learn using a variety of tricks – some of these include alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm. This was verse, and was passed from bard to bard, the older teaching the younger.

The point I’m trying to make is that the reason poetry began, or part of the reason, was to make information memorable and to pass it from generation to generation. Obviously we now have books, libraries, iPads, and video cameras, and so we don’t need to remember anything anymore, unless, of course, you’re doing exams. Poetry began as something to be memorised, and this element still exists in it: use this to your advantage! I find that one of the easiest ways to remember lines of poetry for an exam, is to really enjoy and listen to the sound and feel of the poem rather than its central meaning. I’ll show you what I mean. Let’s take a couple of lines by early seventeenth-century poet John Donne:


Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears,

Hither I come to seek the spring


Now the first thing I would do would be to work out if I understood what was being said here – it’s much harder to learn something you don’t understand, plus you wouldn’t want to be writing on it in an exam. This done I would then listen to the lines like a piece of music, forgetting the literal sense of them for the moment. You’ll hear that the first line has a funny awkward rhythm: Duh de de duh, de de duh de de duh, and the second line carries that on, before becoming lighter and less awkward: Duh de de duh de duh de duh. Now I’m sure that there’s plenty there that one could write about in an essay, but I’m not talking about that, I’m just interested in memorising it as a tune.

You have the rhythm now, so you’ll be wanting the melody. English is a funny language, and we rarely listen to what are known as the unstressed syllables in a sentence. These are the ‘de’s above. The ‘duh’s are stresses, and it is these duhs that we tend to take more notice of. So take a look (or have a listen) to the vowels of the duhs. In the first line we have “ah eye ow ear” (“Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears”) followed by “i eye u ee i” (“Hither I come to seek the spring”). “Ah” and “ow” and “u” are lower vowels, they sound darker, “i” and “eye” are higher – think of the notes on a piano. The fact that the vowel line springs upwards on the words “seek the spring” is part of that link between meaning and sound that is at the heart of poetry. Once you find a link like that, you’ll never be tempted to misremember the line as, for example, “Hither I come to find the spring” – it’ll be stuck in your head.

Memorising Poetry

Try reading through a few lines of poetry slowly and listening out for the melody that’s there. If you can get it stuck in your head – like when an annoying song does, it’ll be much easier to remember. It always helped me to remember quotes for exams, and you’ll find yourself making all sorts of connections between the sound and the meaning, which will help you to remember it, and impress your teachers. Of course, you won’t always be learning poetry quotes, but the technique works pretty well for prose too, just pretend each sentence is a line of poetry. It works – try it!

This technique doesn’t work for everyone, and I’m not saying you won’t have to do the hard slog of slowly and painstakingly memorising lines, but it may make it just that little bit easier, and more enjoyable.

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