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Drop the Paper: How to Memorize Your Poetry

Written by Ami Mattison

“How do you memorize all of those poems?” A woman asked me after one of my shows. It’s a common question, and each time I’m asked, I answer with the same reply: “One word at a time.”

When well-done, reading your poetry, rather than reciting it by memory, can offer a great experience for your audiences. For instance, I’ve seen poet Daphne Gottlieb give awesome performances while holding and reading from one of her books. Her stance, her voice, her gestures, and even the way she held the book in the air—all contributed to confident, polished, and professional performances. Plus, Gottlieb has amazing books to sell. So, if you want to push book sales, then by all means, read from your book.

However, memorizing your poetry has several performance benefits. Freeing your hands of a book or papers means you’re able do more interesting gestures. Also, because you’re not reading from a page, you’re better able to make eye contact with your audience; and not having a paper “barrier” between you and your audience means you can develop a deeper and more intimate connection with them.

Plus, holding a book or paper can betray your nerves. There have been times when I read from paper, and my hands shook so badly that they seemed to have a life of their own. All I could think about was how to stop shaking. Audiences notice these details and can be distracted by them. So, memorizing means you can avoid this dilemma.

Finally, something magical happens when you’ve memorized your poem and all you have to do is focus on performing it for an audience. You’re better able to experience the full-range of emotions that your poetry inspires, and audiences are likely to focus more intensely on your poetry.

Some people find memorization more difficult than others, but there are some simple tricks you can use to make memorizing your poetry easier. Also, some performers experience performance anxiety and find it difficult to remember their lines when in front of audiences. The main solution to this problem is really learning your poetry in a way that keeps you constantly cued to the next word or phrase.

I’ve learned dozens of my poems, and I find the experience of memorizing and developing my pieces as gratifying as performing them in front of supportive audiences. What follows is a method I use for memorizing my poetry. I can’t guarantee that you’ll become a memorization whiz by following this method as everyone learns differently, but I can offer some suggestions that might make memorizing your poetry easier.

  1. Find a space in which you can be alone and uninterrupted. This first step may seem obvious, but it helps to alleviate anxiety if you’re able to read and recite your poem aloud without worrying about being overheard. Finding a private place where you can yell, sing, and experiment with your voice can help to ease any fears, worries, or embarrassment you might feel as you learn. Also, it’s important to remove distractions and not to be interrupted.
  2. Slowly read your poem aloud several times and learn to love it. As you’re reading, think about the poem. Note each word, each image, each line break, and try to remember what you were thinking when you wrote it. Feel your poem again. Feel the emotions and the passion of it. And answers these questions: Why did you write your poem? What is your poem about? What were you trying to say at the time? What do you think of it now? How do you feel about it now? Try to develop a new relationship with your poem by deepening your investment in its meanings and its message. Don’t criticize the poem. Just let it be what it is—an expression of your creativity. In other words, love your poem.
  3. Break the poem into sections of about 3-5 lines each. The sections can be longer or shorter, depending on your poem and its logic, but be sure to make the sections “bite-sized” so that they’re easier to learn. Think about each individual section and discern how it connects to the section before it and after it. What is the “logic” of the poem? How do the words, images, and phrases connect to one another?
  4. Create mental cues for each section. One way is to create a mental cue is to note the key words or rhymes in the section. Another way is to note how the words look on the paper. For instance, when reciting my poetry, I often remember how the words and lines are laid out on the page. Also, you can create a mental cue by noting the feeling the words evoke in you. A final way to create a mental cue is to listen to the way the words sound and to the rhythm of the piece. But there are many ways to create mental cues. So, use whatever method works for you.
  5. Start reciting. Begin by reciting the first section aloud without reading the paper. Say this section several times by memory. As you do so, remember the mental cues and other associations you’ve developed for that section. Repeat the section by memory until you feel that you’ve mastered those lines. Now, recite the second section and do the same thing until you’ve mastered it. Finally, recite both sections together until you can do so easily several times. Keep learning each subsequent section and reciting it with the parts you’ve already learned.
  6. Try to recite the poem three times without faltering. Once you’ve learned the poem, it’s helpful to repeat it several times. If you can’t recite the poem three times in a row, go back and find the places where you forget and quickly create a mental cue for those lines. Try again to recite the poem three times until you can do so without fail.
  7. Practice. Practice. Practice. The best way to learn your poem is to continually practice it in all kinds of situations. I recite my poetry in the shower, in the car while I’m traveling, or while I’m cooking dinner. Also, try reciting it for a trusted person—say, your mother, your best friend, or your partner—so you can get positive feedback. Recite it whenever you can, and pretty soon, it’ll become second nature, something you just know, like your name or the days of the week or the alphabet.

While you’re learning your poem, remember to take occasional breaks and to reward yourself at the end. Resting for even brief periods can help clear your mind of frustration or other distracting thoughts, and giving yourself a small, inexpensive or free reward can help reinforce a job well done.

However, learning to memorize your poem can be an intensely rewarding experience in and of itself. By taking my time with a poem, by delving into its meanings, images, rhymes, and rhythms, and by reciting it for audiences, I come to understand its flaws, its limitations as well as what it does right. In other words, I come to love it in a whole new, unconditional way.

Try memorizing your poetry, and see if this happens for you too.

Do you memorize your poetry? Why or why not? When you’re memorizing, what works for you and what doesn’t?

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