Memorizing Poetry

I can remember the first bad grade I ever got.  I was in the sixth grade, and the assignment was to memorize this poem.  I had no interest in whether the frost was on the punkin, and simply didn’t try very hard when it came to memorizing it.  We didn’t discuss the poem much, or talk about why it was interesting; this was a straight up memorization exercise and although I got a bad grade, I couldn’t bring myself to care very much.  Ironically, I must have done at least some work on the assignment because to this day I remember the first stanza of this poem!

I wouldn’t memorize another poem until I was in an undergraduate public speaking class (although by this time, I had grown to love poetry and probably knew more by heart than I realized).  The assignment was a memorized speech, and most of us in the class did poems or songs.  I chose the first part of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, a very fun poem to memorize and recite.

As a young adult, I didn’t have much reason to memorize poetry, and therefore didn’t.  About a year ago though, that changed when I began running consistently for the first time since I was in high school cross country.  As a teenager, running was easy: you run as fast as you can until it’s time to stop.  For an adult trying to pick it back up it’s a little different.  Getting through those early days of pushing myself to run for a mile, or two, or three, was tough.  I don’t own an iPod, and I wanted something to occupy my mind besides thoughts of how hard it was.  I remembered reading, years ago, that the author Martha Nussbaum would memorize music- such as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’– and run with her own soundtrack in her head.  I decided to use my running time similarly, but I would memorize poetry.  It turned out to be the perfect way to help me push through those difficult first miles.

I was two poems in when my poem-memorization project fell by the wayside; running became more comfortable and I started just enjoying the time alone with my thoughts. I recently set out to increase my mileage and once again, as I push through the hard parts I’ve been looking for another poem to learn during my runs.  My only criteria is that the poem speaks to me in some way, and that it’s a reasonable length.  I think I’ve settled on this one, but I’m open to hearing more suggestions!



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9 responses to “Memorizing Poetry

  1. Eleanor "Serene" Mendicino

    What a wonderful post — it (almost) makes me want to run. You might want to try some Haiku which might in turn inspire you to write something of your own as you notice things in your running.

  2. I’m partially through memorizing “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

  3. Irene

    “If” is on my list of poems I’d like to memorize! I love the idea of haiku as well– the rhythm seems like it would fit right in with running.

  4. I love this idea. I love to run and one thing I find Is that whenever I find my rhythm in any movement, running, swimming, yoga flowing, the wheels in my head turn and I finish with sometimes a completed poem, but I would love to try memorizing poetry. :)

  5. Don

    The Collins is a fun poem and, as is often the case with him, touching, too. I’m not sure it this one is the right, ahem, meter for running, but it might do: A Blessing by James Wright.

  6. lizzy

    I used to sit on my bed and read poems aloud from two collections my sister had given me as a present. I still have the books and she has written poetry for 30 years. Here’s a favorite: From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee

  7. Shall I compare the to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summers lease hath all too short a date…

  8. Pingback: Playing God Isn’t Easy | EssayBoard

  9. artie

    great poem by billy Collins, one of my favorite poets. consider abou ben adam or Stevenson’s children’s hour. running and poetry or music, what a great combination!

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