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Memorizing Poetry and Prose

I’ve always wanted to learn lots of poems by heart.

No, I’ll rephrase that - I’ve always wanted to have learned lots of poems by heart.

The problem is that I do not find memorizing easy even though I’m old enough to have had to learn poetry by heart at school, all of which I’ve forgotten except for a few scattered lines.

However I have made quite a few attempts over the years with the result that I know the opening lines, and the opening lines only, of a large but rather weird selection of poems and books.

Let’s see what I can remember:

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la dirrita via era smarrita
Ahi! Quant’…. um er

Tel qu’en lui-meme enfin l’eternite le change
Le poete suscite avec son glaive nu… er um

Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree
Whose taste brough death into the world and all our woe
Sing heavenly Muse who on the ? of Oreb or of Zion
Didst first instruct…

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the abyss. (…) the spirit of God moved upon the waters (?). And God said Let there be light and there was light. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

I can do a lot more like that. Pretty impressive, eh? Anyone able to recognise the mangled remains of these great passages?**

What’s the reason for this abysmal performance? Well partly of course it’s that learning by heart takes effort and application, and also constant revision and renewal. But it’s also that I’ve never really found a satisfactory method. As soon as the words seem to be in my head, they start flowing out again. The idea of learning a long poem like “Paradise Lost” is demotivating not just because of the immense effort involved but because I’m quite sure that by the time I’d reached the end I’d long ago have forgotten the beginning.

Yet our ancestors don’t seem to have had too much problem with memorizing. The Iliad and the Odyssey are supposed to have been transmitted orally. The Vedic Sutras have been transmitted orally for thousands of years so accurately there are no variant readings. To be a bishop in the ancient church, you had to know all the psalms off by heart (it takes over five hours to recite them), Sir Winston Churchill recounted in My Early Life that his father had committed to memory long passages of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  And a more recent (fictional) example of our failing ability to remember, in the wedding with which The Godfather opens - which is set in 1945 - everyone knows the words of the Italian songs. In the Godfather Part III - which is set in the late 70s - everyone stumbles over the words.

My own personal reason for not having learned any poems successfully since my schooldays is that I have never found a satisfactory method for doing it. I’ve tried all the methods that a Google search will reveal, without much success with any of them.

But just recently I’ve found a method which seems to work better. I’d be interested to know if it works for anyone else.

The Method:

1. Take one chunk of the passage at a time. A verse, short paragraph or long sentence is about right.

2. Read it to yourself over and over trying each time to say as much as you can from memory

3. Keep doing this until you can repeat the whole chunk at least once from memory

4. Then revise the chunk to yourself at intervals without referring to the book

5. Say as much as you can as accurately as you can, but don’t refer to the book. Force your mind to reconstruct the passage as far as it can without prompting.

6. Do this several times, and then refer back to the passage. Repeat 4 to 6 until you’ve got it pat. Then move on to the next chunk.

The key to this is in the forcing yourself to remember rather than giving your mind an easy crutch.


** The opening lines of 1) Dante’s Divine Comedy 2) Mallarmé’s Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe 3) Milton’s Paradise Lost 4) The Book of Genesis (King James version).

Reader Comments (18)

Memorizing poetry

As a storyteller who hangs out with some of national fame (storytellers love mentoring), here are some tips:


Read it every night before bed. Don't worry about memorizing. Just read each word. Out loud works best.


Start from the end. Work on the last word/sentence/paragraph until you have it. Z (Chunk size depends on you and the piece and the moment.) Once you have that, work on the next chunk and then both of them. YZ Then work on a third bit, and run through all you have. XYZ.

The benefit of this is you're working from weak to strong. We focus most at the beginning of a run, the weaker bit. Then we finish strong.


Look at the overall plot or changes. Where it rises, where it falls. What changes? What cases the change? What ripples does each change cause?


Look for repetition and patterns, and where those patterns are broken. Again, those are linked to change. They're very clear in the poem Autobiography in Five Chapters, by Portia Nelson.

Hope this helps!
March 9, 2016 at 14:48 | Registered CommenterCricket
A related idea that's worth checking out:

Once you've nailed the memorization, reviewing it after escalating interval lengths appears to help cement it into long-term memory.
March 9, 2016 at 15:19 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua Newman
A recently finished a fantastic book on the subject of learning/memorization: "Make It Stick" ( ). It covers spaced repetition, mnemonic techniques, etc in a very accessible and actionable fashion. Highly recommended!
March 9, 2016 at 15:25 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Thanks for the ideas. I've heard mention of learning from the end before, but never known what the rationale for it was. I'll give it a try!
March 9, 2016 at 15:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Joshua Newman:

I've used spaced repetition a lot for memorizing foreign vocabulary and things like that, but never managed to find a way of applying that to longer things like poems, etc. I've found it less effective even for short phrases rather than individual words when learning a language.
March 9, 2016 at 15:58 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< recently finished a fantastic book on the subject of learning/memorization >>

Thanks for the recommendation. Does it specifically cover learning poems and other lengthy passages by heart - which is what this post is about?

Looking at the Amazon preview of the book I can't see "poem", "poetry" or anything about learning by heart in the index.
March 9, 2016 at 16:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I don't remember where I got this link, but I thought it a good low-tech way of learning a poem: . The author of that brief article claims it helped him learn Ginsberg's "Howl" in two days.

A developer then made a standalone web app that helps you with the process: . You can download the web page to your computer and run it standalone without needing a network connection. So you could use this page on your smartphone too, I guess (I don't have a smartphone).
March 9, 2016 at 16:27 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
Mike Brown:

I've seen that article before and I seem to remember that I couldn't make it work. I might have another try!
March 9, 2016 at 16:50 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I admit I am *very* intrigued by Cricket's "learn the ending first" method. Am very interested to hear your results on those experiments.

One of my meditation techniques years ago was based on Eknath Easwaran's method of s-l-o-w-l-y reciting (mentally) passages of sacred literature to oneself during meditation. If the mind wandered during the recitation, then I had to start back to the first passage and go through them all again till the half hour was up. I remember some days it being a terrific struggle to focus on one or two passages, and on other days, I'd go through my few memorized passages up to 3 times with no struggle at all.

These days, I'd like to memorize poetry. A teacher of mine said that one of the values of memorizing poems was that they consoled one during dark times. Almost unbidden, the passage you need swims up from memory.

I have a few passages of Shakespeare that I've got solid, but I can't claim they're more valuable than the few Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs I love humming to myself!
March 9, 2016 at 19:09 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
Last year I spent some time experimenting with an idea for memorising speeches. The concept was to use varying levels of redaction so that on each line you got just enough of a hint to allow you to recall it. The level of redaction was specific to each line, so parts you found easier had fewer hints.

This way, you were always recalling each line, with progressively decreasing help to stretch your efforts. So, initially, you might get the first couple of letters and last letter of each word, then just the first and last letters, then only the first letters.

It did make a significant difference versus just brute force, but it took forever to test possible variations objectively (there are lots) and eventually I got sick of it. I would also have liked to test out whether hearing the material recited by different people had a better impact than just self reciting or listening to a single recording.
March 9, 2016 at 20:33 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
Having memorized and told over 50 stories (some of them more than once), and participated in many discussions of techniques, since most new tellers ask, I've tried many of these other techniques. Here are my thoughts:

(First, learning vs memorizing. Storytellers learn. The words support the story. Sometimes they are traditional, other times repetitive, other times the writer used words that work for us, other times we create our own words.

(It's different with poetry. The sound, rythm and rhyme are important, and that means exact words.)

I use different techniques as the spirit moves me, depending on what parts are giving me trouble.

Mike's link on How to Memorize a Poem:

I can see it working. It focuses on links, first between adjacent sections and in larger chunks. The downside is it makes all links equal. Links within a paragraph are more important than links between them. You need to respect the pauses between paragraphs and scenes. It's not a conscious rule, but the pause in speech serves the same purpose as the extra space between paragraphs on the screen. Just a sliver of time to review the first part and prepare to shift gears for the next.

I used to do it this way: Say it's in 8-line stanzas, and 4-line chunks within each stanza. Very common. AB, CD, ABCD, EF, GH, EFGH, ABCDEFGH. But, that's a lot of repetition of the first part at the strong, beginning part of rehearsal.

Also, I'm curious how long that process would take for a 45-minute poem. At 120 words per minute, 7 words per line (very rough estimates). In two days? Plus sleep?

Reciting before going to bed. Yep. Brains hold on to the last work of the day, and reinforce it while sleeping. (So never worry before bed.) One caveat: Don't work from memory unless you're confident. You don't want to reinforce the wrong words. Reading works well, especially out loud. Now is a good time to focus on the deep connections (but not the emotions, unless you want to dream about them).

Just sleep on it. My voice teacher's students regularly do very well in festivals and exams. She does an intense rehearsal with us and the accompanist two days before, then tells us not to work on it all the next day, not even the tricky parts. An hour before she does complete warmup and complete but not deep rehearsal. Her results prove it works.

In the 2nd last paragraph, he admits that you've only mechanically memorized the text, and you now need to explore for the meaning and connections. As is clear from the above, I consider the deep connections useful when learning. Although, they are fluid. Sometimes after I learn the piece I see other connections.


I recently taught this method to a more-experienced teller who was having trouble learning pieces where scenes repeated with variation. It's a common fairy tale, with the usual vagueness.

We looked at each scene. What was the same? The frog kneeled before her after supper and said, "We agreed, I get your ball out of the pond, you let me in your bedroom for three nights." What details are left out? The first time, describe his clothes (green, frills, hat) in detail. Second time, less (green). Third time, no need to repeat. What was different? Her reaction to the request. "No!" "Only because of the contract." "Sure, if I have to." Her actions in the morning. "Now get out of my room." "Oh, good morning. Stay and converse if you have to." The third morning, he is absent. "I miss him." (Then, when she finds him and admits this, he turns into a prince.)

Then add details such as how happy she was when playing with the ball before it fell in the pond; how distraught she was; the reaction of family and staff to the frog arriving for dinner; lots and lots of flowery phrases; how the frog managed the cutlery; the wedding.

(Pretty boring, right? Since it's a common enough story, we have free rein. An experienced teller can turn that into a 20 minute story.)


If you'd like, then start! Pick something that has meaning to you.

Most storytellers find prose much easier to learn than poetry.


I haven't used redaction in a while, but it works well for poetry. It develops links to words rather than concepts.

It also lets you rehearse large chunks quickly.

For prose, I often start with an outline.


They focus on very deep links. In my Introduction to Storytelling Class, the teacher said, "when you forget the next part," and "when you realize you didn't tell the audience about the boat."

An outline helps me keep on track. After the field and farmer comes the mountain. Oops, he's at the top of the mountain, needs the grain for the giant eagle, but I forgot to say the farmer rewarded him with grain. No problem. Build a fire for the night and explore the bag the farmer gave him in thanks.

To avoid the problem, I split my brain a bit. One part focuses on a few key sequences. "Farmer, grain, mountain, bird."

(Now you're wondering what he did for the farmer. Something clever, using the reward from his previous challenge, or a gift from Mom before he left home, or something his big brother (who already failed the quest due to arrogance) left behind.)

(This is a very common storyline. Even if the audience recognizes it early on, we enjoy seeing how the teller fleshes it out.)

(Timer beeped. See you another day!)
March 10, 2016 at 14:52 | Registered CommenterCricket
You seem to be using a brute force method. I would suggest that you consider mnemonics.

For example, you could create a list of key words, one per chunk or stanza. Basically, a reminder of the rest. Then you memorize that list. There are numerous ways to memorize a list ... memory palace method, link method, etc.

The rule of thumb in memory work is that our minds tend to reject brute force methods. You can't remember the last ten times you brushed your teeth, but you do probably remember things and events that are out of the ordinary.

Mnemonics, used well, means that you are visualizing something memorable, and only reciting it a few times, if that, before you have made the initial memory. See the pic, and the memory is formed and memorable.

Memory challenges will have people memorize dozens of decks of cards, looking at them only ONCE! Making memorable images is far quicker than brute force alone.

Brute force also has another drawback ... over time, the middle of text can get lost, forgotten. But if that poem is tied to say, a twenty word list, you have a mental hook to remind you of the middle parts, long-term. And you can always go back and learn the list again!

March 14, 2016 at 14:25 | Unregistered CommenterHere

<< I would suggest that you consider mnemonics. >>

I'm sure mnemonics work for some - perhaps most - people, but I'm afraid for me they are classed under the heading of "unsatisfactory methods I have tried" - and I have tried them often enough. They do make sense when remembering numbers, cards or other sequences which have no intrinsic meaning, so for instance I have used a mnemonic to remember my car registration number and I also use them occasionally as a crutch when I have a bit of foreign language vocabulary which I'm really stuck over. But memorizing a passage of poetry or prose is a quite different matter.

The passage to be remembered will already contain memorable ideas (otherwise why would one bother to memorize it?). It will also need to be word perfect. So I've always found adding another layer of unrelated meaning to be rather pointless - just another thing to remember in fact.

It would appear that most actors do not use mnemonics to memorize their lines:

I'd be interested in the research behind your statement that our minds tend to reject "brute force" methods. I don't in any case think that "brute force" is a fair description of the sort of methods I'm recommending.
March 14, 2016 at 15:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
One method that I used with some success in Learning Chinese passages was just to write the first letter of the word and use that as a prompt to recall what the word was. In the case of chinese, it would be the first pinyin letter. Then as you get better it would be the first letter of the sentence. The idea is to take advantage of the testing effect: you learn more from making it a question. I believe I came across this idea on the how to learn any language forums. I'm not sure if its visible on a google search anymore. Otherwise, i just want to thank Mark for all of his writings over the years.
March 14, 2016 at 17:08 | Unregistered Commenteradam

There is a similar method for learning poems or prose passages in which you write the first letter of each word.

So "I wandered lonely as a cloud" would be i w l a a c (and so on)

The idea is that you learn the poem looking at the first letters until you can confidently say it with the first letters only. You then repeat the poem without looking at the first letters but whenever you get stuck you prompt yourself from the first letters (i.e. not from the poem itself).

Personally I prefer to learn without this sort of mental crutch as I find they get tedious after a while. However many people find this method useful.
March 14, 2016 at 18:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I like mnemonics for some things, but not all.

For me, the benefit of a mnemonic is the speed. If I stop to look it up, I lose flow and mental connections. With a mnemonic, though, I stay in the flow. The mnemonic becomes faster and faster, and eventually fades, at least during study. During an exam or performance, the mnemonic comes back and reassures me. Also, since my mnemonics are often a bit silly, I relax and enjoy the moment.

For the journey story above, I might say, "field, farmer, grain, mountain, bird" to a beat, and visualize my character dancing to that beat through a field, around a farmer, with a dancing grain stalk, up the mountain, and around the (confused) bird. And my foot taps in time.

And for music theory? Mnemonics and multi-sensory all the way. List all the Italian words for volume, in ascending order. Emphasize the key differences (Most of them start with the letter R) and associate each one with a body part, working feet to head. Actually wiggle each [art while learning.
March 15, 2016 at 12:47 | Registered CommenterCricket

This illustrates pretty well the differences between people!

For the story, I'd just remember the story. I mean, it's a story, isn't it? - so it should just hang together, shouldn't it?. Why does anyone need to visualize another story on top of it? I could tell you the entire plot of War and Peace without any difficulty.

But as for music theory... I've tried every method under the sun and absolutely nothing has stuck!
March 15, 2016 at 13:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yes, the story should flow, but that's not always enough, especially with longer stories. Or, strangely enough, with shorter stories where there's not as much characterization and less to visualize.

My stories are usually 2 to 15 minutes long. I some 30 minutes, but rarely have the opportunity to tell them.

When performing, it's very easy to be thrown off, especially if you focus on the words.

The audience laughs when not expected to. Someone coughs or enters or leaves. Microphone falls. Opportunity to connect to story told earlier by other teller, or recent event, or friend in the audience. Or to a story you just learned a nervous teller is thinking of telling later (as a way of encouraging them). Or maybe my memory isn't working that night.

Or I decide to tell the story at the last minute. Sometimes I'll switch at the last moment. With 50 in inactive repertoire, I often have one that fits and expands on a theme. Or I realize the one I'd prepared for the evening would be inappropriate.

So, yes, it should hang together. But sometimes it doesn't, through no fault of the story. Having a memory aid of some sort is a big help.

Also, if I'm nervous about remembering the key events, I'll focus on that instead of the performance and the audience.


I forgot to mention, as the character dances through the events, I also visualize what he picks up. As he leaves the field, he waves the grain.

Yes, I use different methods at different times. Whatever method seems to work in the moment. I've been telling for 10 years.
March 18, 2016 at 17:56 | Registered CommenterCricket

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