More Thoughts About Memorizing Poetry

I think that learning a little about poetry structure yesterday was useful.

I started looking at some poems. This example is an excerpt by e. e. cummings:

AMORES I

consider O
woman this
my body.
for it has

lain
with empty arms
upon the giddy hills
to dream of you,

E.E. Cummings

E.E. Cummings

Now that I have some awareness of meter I can pick out patterns, like the iambic feet in lines 4 to 8. If my recalled words don’t fit an iambic pattern, I’ll know that my recall is wrong.

There are short lines of 2 words each. Then a pickup, like the anacrusis in American folk music where the music moves to a C chord from a G on guitar (G A B C). I set “for it has” to those notes on guitar.

E|---------------------|-0------|
B|---------------------|-1------|
G|---------------------|-0------|
D|---------------------|-2------|
A|-----------0----2----|-3------|
E|------3--------------|--------|

        for  it   has    lain

consider O
woman this
my body.
for it has

lain
with empty arms
upon the giddy hills
to dream of you,

“Lain” is easy to remember because it hooks into my English grammar mnemonics with the airplane (lie), wolf (lay), and Lois Lane (has lain).

Line breaks happen at nouns:

lain
with empty arms
upon the giddy hills
to dream of you,

Punctuation Mnemonics

There is a period (smooth black stone) after “my body”, and a comma (dandelion flower) after “you”. Easy images.

Identifying with the Characters’ Motivations

Yan mentioned a good tip about emotions. On my first run through of the poem, I accidentally remembered:

take O
woman this
my body.

instead of:

consider O
woman this
my body.

To fix it, I thought about the motivation: asking the woman to consider information rather than take something.

“O” is a Japanese prefix that adds respect. “O” comes before woman.

It isn’t “giddy arms” and “empty hills”; his arms are empty because he is dreaming. “Giddy hills” implies motion in the image of hills.

USA Competition Poetry Event

The US poetry event example doesn’t appear to have a fixed meter so knowing the structure of poetry might not help as much.

This part of the poetry competition example looks like dactyl-trochee-iamb-iamb-anapest:

“Splashes of color, they catch the beams of the sun”

It seems easy to remember patterns. Dactyl-trochee immediately reminds me of notation for Venezuelan guitar music which brings up the image of a Venezuelan guitar player who I met in Argentina.

Venezuelan Merengue

Venezuelan Merengue

Memorization Method for Poetry

At this early stage, I’m thinking that I will try to memorize general structures of the poems, and then assign one unit of a poem (probably a line) to each locus.

To memorize a lot of poetry this way will require a lot of memory journeys.

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2 comments

  • The problem is that you may try to use a metrical pattern to support your recall, and then find out later that you’ve read the line wrong and the metrical pattern is really a different one. This will cause you distress and make you feel as if you can’t rely on metrical patterns and then make you think you’ll never be able to memorize another poem.

    Why not just get the words down for each line, much as you’d memorize a speech or any prose? Once this is done, once the words are SET in place, you can begin to figure out the metrics by “reading” the poem in different ways.

    I’ll bet that if you chose a poem to memorize (without doing research on its metrical patterns) and assumed you figured out the metrics, then one day somebody will come along and prove you got the rhythms wrong. Not with every poem, of course. If you’re lucky, you’ll realize that even though you got the metrics wrong, you WERE able to memorize the poem, which simply proves that what you thought were correct metrics weren’t necessary, since even wrong metrics could help.

    In other words, for memorizing poetry, leave metrics at the side of the road. Don’t make things complicated. The whole point of mnemonics is to simplify.

  • For me, the meter is a way to check for errors. Also, a way to understand the poet better. I exaggerate the meter because rhythm is memorable. I think the existence of meter in older poetry is actually to aid in memorization. I’ve had the rhythm to Keats’ “To Autumn” unconsciously bouncing around in my head on and off during the past couple of days–not the actual words, just the flow of the words… 🙂

    “conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch eaves run …”

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