The Gift of Memorising Poetry

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.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, 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

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

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)

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