Committing a poem to memory is about becoming the poem. The words on the page are just blueprints. They aren’t the poem itself.
When I learn a poem, what I’m learning is a way of arranging my mind. The words suggest how to do that. If all goes well, the arrangement of my mind looks something like the mind of the poet.
I’ve been skimming articles on poetry memorization and recitation today, and I think everyone I’ve so far read is confused about what a “poem” is. They talk like a poem is a series of words, like it can go on a sheet of paper, and your brain is a xerox machine that makes a copy and files it away in a manila envelope labeled “poems”.
They advise that you to read the poem many times, write it out by hand, take it a couple lines a day, and recite it over and over to people and mirrors and dogs.
That is not learning poetry. That is copying blueprints.
Granted, I’m pretty sure that once you’ve recited it from memory enough times, the true form of the poem will begin to build itself in your mind, whether you like it or not. But humans make poor xerox machines, and this seems a terribly inefficient way to learn a poem.
Here is what it was like for me to learn “Sea Fever” the other day.
First of all, I read it, and halfway through realized I loved it and was going to commit it to memory.
So I reflected on what I’d just read, long enough to imagine myself a sea captain in love with the ocean. By “imagine myself a sea captain”, I mean that I invoked a character, in the same way I would if I were playing one on stage. If I reach to touch my face while preparing to recite this poem, I half expect to feel a tangled beard hanging from my chin.
Then I read the first phrase (in character): “I must go down to the sea again”. I look for the emotion behind those words, and once I’ve caught a glimpse, I amplify it. Craving, longing, adoration, desire, determination, resolve.
I feel the emotions with my body, in the way it makes me want to move and act, to position myself. In this case, I feel forward movement, reaching, the clenching of a fist, a tall firm stance, a nod of certainty.
When I speak the line, I fill my voice with those emotions, and I let the sound of the emotions resonate in my mind, amplifying them further.
I latch onto all the sensory information in the phrase, situating it in an imagined physical space. Here there is an image of the sea, and returning to it. I picture the ocean, feel the breeze, hear the crashing waves, and imagine myself walking toward it with eager steps of reunion and love.
I steep the scene in the emotions I identified before, tweaking it if it doesn’t quite mesh with them, until it seems a fitting illustration of the feeling.
Then I taste the music of the phrase, its rhythm and sounds, sweeping over the experience of the scene according to the cadence of the words.
This often modifies the bodily urges, as I’m drawn to gesture at the locations of the physical objects, or to imitate their movements, or emphasize a sound. If you watch me recite, you’ll see that I sort of dance my poems.
I think of all of this as “diving into” the phrase.
Then I read the next phrase, and read the first together with the second, and then the next, diving into each substructure until the string of phrases completes a coherent thought.
Once I have two coherent thoughts, I dive into the relationship between them, the transition points, the ways they fit together.
In Sea Fever, I learned the first stanza like so, diving into each structure in turn:
- I must go down to the sea again
- to the lonely sea and the sky
- I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky
- And all I ask
- And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by
- I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky/ and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by
- and the wheel’s kick
- and the wind’s song
- and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song
- and the white sails shaking
- and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking
- and a grey mist
- and a grey mist on the sea’s face
- and a grey dawn breaking
- and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking
- and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking/ and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking
- I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky/ and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;/ and the wheel’s kick [note: this is a transition point]
- I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky/ and all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by/ and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking/ and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking
How many times have I read the stanza by the time I’ve constructed its full form in my mind? How many repetitions does it take me to memorize a poem?
Well, it depends on how you count. In a sense, two: one pass to be inspired to learn it, and a second to actually learn it. But I’m not “reading” it in an ordinary way.
“How many repetitions?” is a little like asking “how many times do you have to read the manual to put together an Ikea desk?”
Just one, right? But you’re not reading it like a newspaper, you’re pausing at each step to follow the instructions, inserting tab A into slot b and so forth. When I construct a poem with my mind, I pause at each step to follow the instructions.
(Time-wise, Sea Fever took me between fifteen and twenty minutes to learn, while going for depth rather than speed.)
So by the time I’m done, I can walk through the poem as I’d walk through a building designed by an architect (…if buildings could experience themsleves). I’m not tracing out its blueprints. I’ve used the materials of my mind to construct the actual poem - in thoughts, emotions, sounds, smells, and movement - and now it’s part of who I am.
If you like poetry and you’ve never learned to recite a poem from memory by means other than rote memorization, I recommend trying this. It’s been revelatory for me.
If you’re looking for a place to start, Sea Fever is a great pick. It’s concrete multi-sensory imagery the whole way through, and it isn’t free verse.
I feel like I didn't understand what poetry was before I started doing this. I think I was looking at the blueprints of poems, and thinking some of them awfully pretty pictures.
Now I think poems are not things we read, but things we become.
Sea Fever by John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.