New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Memorising poetry

By Shirley Bell


Memorising poetry is becoming a lost art, I think, but one that is underrated. It is often referred to as learning by heart, and this is very apt because to remember well there has to be an emotional hit.

I still remember long chunks of poetry I learned for exams, along with Milton and Shakespearean speeches. My poor children frequently used to get “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is 
To have a thankless child!” when they annoyed me. it was more useful than “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves”  at any rate.

Previous generations had to remember great tranches of famous poems as part of their schooldays and the elderly will talk of how they still remember them and often draw comfort and inspiration from them. We may despise the dum-te-dum rhythms of some of these, but the simple act of memorising a poem which intrigues or moves us means we are never alone if we are stuck somewhere with no company and nothing to read. It is also supposed to be a protection from dementia! -who knows, we can hope.

As writers, the more involved with poetry we are, the more it enables us to write our own work. Reading good contemporary poetry (alongside the poetry that has stood the test of time of course) fills our minds with a kind of background music. When we come to express our own ideas, there is therefore a scaffolding in place that will help to improve our own musicality and power of expression. If we have memorised poetry, this inherent advantage is internalised.

I am not suggesting plagiarism or creating derivative work. But I do think a mind full of powerful and affecting work can only be a positive influence.

So, I have browsed the web and found some favourites.

They are short and easy to recall. However, there is also a lot to think about contained within them, or a very strong picture to see in your mind’s eye. If nothing else they will help if you are going insane with boredom if traffic jams, waiting rooms and other situations when you are just hanging around going crazy.

Poppies in October

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.

Nor the woman in the ambulance

Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly –


A gift, a love gift

Utterly unasked for

By a sky


Palely and flamily

Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes

Dulled to a halt under bowlers.


Oh my God, what am I

That these late mouths should cry open

In a forest of frosts, in a dawn of cornflowers.


Sylvia Plath 1932 – 1963


I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.

Adelaide Crapsey 1878 – 1914

(Adelaide Crapsey devised an elegant form she called the cinquain. It appears to be free verse, but the first line has one beat, the second two beats, the third has three beats and the fourth four and then line five is back to one beat again.  So there is a progression and then a retreat).


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams 1883 – 1963


They Flee from Me

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Thomas Wyatt 1503 –1542

(said to have written poetry to Anne Boleyn)
I Stood Upon a High Place

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

Stephen Crane 1871 – 1900)


Go To The Limits Of Your Longing


God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

Then walks with us silently out of the night.


These are words we dimly hear:


You, sent out beyond your recall,

Go to the limits of your longing.


Embody me.


Flare up like flame

And make big shadows I can move in.


Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.


Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.


Give me your hand.


-Rainer Maria Rilke 1875 – 1926

translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows


[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]


i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you


here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart


i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)


  1. e. cummings 1894-1962




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